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Wolfensberger: House Swaps Fiscal Cliff for Marital Rift

House Republicans deserve muted applause for backing away from another fiscal cliff over the debt limit. They get only half a clap for now because: (a) the fix is only temporary — a three-month suspension of the debt limit, and (b) the fix swaps the fiscal cliff for another geo-metaphoric hazard — the marital rift.

Under the terms of the “no budget, no pay” rules, members will not be paid if their chamber does not adopt a budget resolution by April 15. The unpaid salaries will be placed in an escrow account and released only when the delinquent chamber adopts a budget resolution or, if it doesn’t, at the end of this two-year Congress. That’s where the marital rift comes in: “You’re telling me you voted us no income for two years? What were you thinking?”

The reason for the escrow device is the 27th Amendment to the Constitution, which says, “No law, varying the compensation for the services of the senators and representatives, shall take effect until an election of representatives shall have intervened.” Even the delayed pay provision may not suffice constitutionally. That’s because members’ compensation is defined by statute as an annual amount.

That means that if either chamber has not adopted a budget by the end of this year, the compensation of members of that chamber will be $0 for the last eight months of the year, causing a substantial downward variation in their legally mandated annual pay.

Republicans were quick to proclaim the bipartisan nature of the “no budget, no pay” concept: It was introduced by Democrat Jim Cooper of Tennessee with 52 bipartisan co-sponsors after germinating at the grass-roots No Labels hothouse. There are, however, some glaring differences between the Cooper bill and the GOP version. Cooper’s bill docks all members’ pay unless Congress (not just one house) adopts a budget resolution and completes action on all appropriations bills by Oct. 1. For another, Cooper’s bill would not take effect until the next Congress, thereby addressing the constitutional issue.

I previously criticized the No Labels proposal here and in Senate testimony because it “unnecessarily punishes and demeans the entire institution.” The most common refrain during House debate on the bill was: “Where I come from, if you don’t do your job you don’t get paid.” That argument insults every member of Congress because it suggests members are not working if Congress doesn’t complete its budgetary duties on time. And yet members are working daily on other legislative matters in committee and on the floor, as well as intervening regularly before federal agencies on behalf of constituents.

While the Cooper approach unfairly punishes the entire institution, the Republican alternative targets only the delinquent chamber. The House GOP presumes this again will be the Senate, which has not adopted a budget in more than three years. That presumption implies that the House will have completed its work if it adopts a budget resolution. However, the Budget Act requires both houses to adopt the same resolution.

One of the lessons House Republicans reportedly took away from their retreat last month was that the House cannot govern this country unilaterally — it must work with the Senate and president. A one-chamber budget does not comport with that lesson. Absent unified action by Congress on the budget, the two houses will continue to fumble along on nonparallel spending tracks, relapsing to government by continuing resolution or, worse, by irresolution and shutdown.

From a positive perspective (the half clap), the “no budget, no pay” gimmick produced 199 House Republican votes to suspend the debt limit (although Speaker John A. Boehner’s new pledge of a balanced budget in 10 years also had something to do with it). Moreover, the bill mustered 86 House Democratic votes and signoff by the president and Senate majority leader.

Most important, the hubbub raised in the House over the Senate’s past inaction on budgets sufficiently embarrassed that body into passing the bill and promising action on a budget resolution this year. Sometimes gimmicks work, although this one could still end up biting House Republicans back.

The adoption of a common budget resolution could lead to a reconciliation process and put both houses back on the same spending track. Those are three giant steps, by no means assured. Still, the commitment by both houses to adopt a budget resolution is a welcome first step, especially if it spares members the agony of marital rift.

Don Wolfensberger is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

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