Voinovich: In Defense of No Labels’ ‘No Budget, No Pay’

Posted March 28, 2012 at 6:09pm

I was pleased that Norman Ornstein, one of America’s foremost Congressional reform experts, gave credibility in his recent Roll Call article to most of No Labels’ 12-point Make Congress Work! action plan. The goal of No Labels, a bipartisan group, is to get government back on track by adopting 12 simple reforms that would break the gridlock and hyperpartisanship in Congress.

For example, No Labels is proposing common-sense proposals such as filibuster reform, up-or-down votes for presidential appointments within 90 days and synchronizing the schedules of House and Senate Members so that they are actually in Washington, D.C., at the same time.

I was disappointed, however, that Ornstein gave short shrift to one of the recommendations: “no budget, no pay.”

The proposal has attracted widespread support elsewhere. Nearly 50 respected Members of the House and Senate have co-sponsored the legislation, and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee recently held a hearing on the bill and the larger No Labels agenda.

I respect Ornstein greatly, and thus would like to address some of his concerns with the proposal.

To me, the argument that this bill would discourage people from running for Congress simply does not hold water. Members of Congress are paid $174,000 a year and receive generous retirement, medical, travel and other benefits. Can you imagine a person who is considering running for the House or Senate saying, “I’m not going to run because if I don’t do my job, I won’t get paid?”

Ornstein equates cutting lawmakers’ pay with “perks” of the office. However, pay is more than simply a perk — it is an agreement for compensation between the public and its representatives for serving the country. This bill therefore presumes that we can expect some work performance from Members before they are paid in the same way we expect it from other public- and private-sector workers — teachers, plumbers, firefighters and others.

Another concern Ornstein raises is that only so many Members of Congress have the power to bring a budget to the floor. Yes, that point is factually accurate, but it skips over a simple truth. Right now, there is not nearly enough of an incentive for Members of either side of the aisle to put pressure, public or private, on their leaders to bring to the floor a budget and appropriations bills that could attract bipartisan support and pass Congress.

When it comes to running the Senate and the House, majority and minority leaders need to listen to each Member in their respective chamber — whether rich or poor. They are elected by both rich and poor to those posts, and if they want to keep those posts, they will not want to put any Members in the position to lose their pay. Do you really believe that the leaders in each chamber will not be concerned about the livelihood of all Members when they take actions to pass the budget and 12 appropriations bills?

Additionally, one of the points of the legislation is to ensure that all Senators and House Members have “skin in the game” when it comes to the budget and appropriations bills being done on time. All Members should take an interest in this most fundamental role of Congress. “No budget, no pay” would incentivize more Members to get engaged to make the entire budget and appropriations process work again.

For years, many of us have decried that Congress did not carry out its No. 1 responsibility: to pass a budget and complete appropriations by Oct. 1, the beginning of the federal fiscal year. As a matter of fact, in 2009, I asked the Government Accountability Office to do a study on the negative effect of continuing resolutions. In the past 30 years, all but three fiscal years have seen CRs enacted at some point. I encourage Ornstein and everyone else to read the report.

As one of the findings from the GAO report suggests, “Agencies have experienced managing problems within the funding constraints and uncertainty of CRs and use methods within their available authorities. However, there is no easy way to avoid or completely mitigate the effects of CRs on agency operations.”

To name one specific example out of many: In the past, the problems created by CRs led the Veterans Health Administration to delay hundreds of millions of dollars in repairs to veterans hospitals.

It’s time to face the facts. There is no question that CRs contribute to waste, fraud and abuse and mismanagement of the federal government, and as a longtime Senate debt hawk, I believe our failure to pass a budget and appropriations bills has led to the fiscal crisis we are now experiencing. To change the outcomes, we need to change the incentives. That’s why I strongly support No Labels and the “no budget, no pay” proposal. I encourage Norman Ornstein to do the same.

Republican George Voinovich served two terms in the Senate and two terms as governor of Ohio.