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It won’t happen and probably shouldn’t happen, but Congress should at least think about — and scare itself with — the prospect of passing Rep. Mike Bilirakis’ (R-Fla.) perennial legislation tying Members’ pay to the passage of appropriations bills. Something has to be done to break Congress’ habit of not passing bills to fund the government until well past the start of each fiscal year.

Last year’s performance was the worst in memory. The 107th Congress adjourned in late November without having passed 11 of the 13 appropriations bills for fiscal 2003. It took until February for the 108th Congress to clean up the mess with the biggest-ever omnibus funding bill. Along the way, all the civilian Cabinet departments had to suffer through the prospect that Congress might abandon all responsibility and merely continue their funding at fiscal 2002 levels. Mercifully, that didn’t happen.

As we say, last year was the worst, but it was far from the first. Omnibus funding bills are an all-too-frequent recourse for Congresses — and White Houses —unable to process appropriations bills in regular order. And getting all 13 passed and signed by the beginning of the new fiscal year, Oct. 1, is practically unheard of.

To force Congress to discipline itself, Bilirakis proposes a double whammy: (1) If all 13 spending bills are not passed by the beginning of a fiscal year, the funding for Members’ pay would would be suspended, and (2) the legislative branch appropriations bill would not be in order in either the Senate or the House unless all 12 other bills had passed both chambers and been sent to the president. The latter provision would codify Congress’ usual practice of having the leg branch bill trail other appropriations. The former obviously would be the lash.

This is the seventh time that Bilirakis has introduced his Congressional Pay for Performance Act. It has never gotten anywhere and it won’t this year, either. And it shouldn’t be enacted. Doomsday devices always have an escape clause, and when the clause is invoked — as becomes common practice — it holds Congress up to ridicule. Besides, Members earn their pay even when their leaders can’t get their act together.

Public accountability — that is, criticism from the media and voters — as well as a sense of responsibility should be sufficient lashes to compel Congressional leaders to perform the elemental function of keeping the government running. Again this year, though, we’re worried that they won’t be. It’s almost Memorial Day recess and not one Appropriations subcommittee in either chamber has even received its allocation from the full Appropriations Committee, much less begun marking up a bill.

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