No Budget, No Pay: Will This Bill Finally Force Congress to Pass a Budget?

At their retreat last week in Williamsburg, Va., the Republican members of Congress decided to allow a debt ceiling increase and use the discussions on the continuing resolution to fund the government as the vehicle for deficit reduction. As a condition, something which Democrats have said is a non-starter, House leadership is demanding the Senate pass a budget resolution, something they have not done in four years. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) the third ranking majority member has said the Senate will comply, but in confrontational language, told the GOP it will include revenue increases. The request by the House was also confrontational. The bill to be considered will include a provision that if both the House and Senate fail to pass a budget resolution by the April 15 deadline, they will not get paid until they do.

This would appear to be setting off another game of chicken. However, on Tuesday President Obama said he welcomed this move by the GOP and would not oppose the bill should it pass the House. Given the president’s position, it is likely the Senate would also pass the bill.

But before we breathe a sigh of relief, there’s this: The House proposal allows the government to borrow an unspecified amount to pay its bills only until May. For a short time we, the American people, are all winners.

Assuming the Senate passes a budget resolution, the House must also pass a similar resolution. This would most likely involve reintroducing the budget resolution passed by the House last year. The two resolutions would then go to a House/Senate Conference Committee where the real fight will take place. The Republicans will bring spending cuts. The Democrats will present revenue increases. If both sides are willing to work together, this is where it will be apparent. As long as talks are proceeding in conference, the continuing resolution to keep the government functioning should not be a problem. If talks are not moving well, expect the rhetoric to move to the issue of avoiding a government shutdown. If the House and Senate can produce a joint budget resolution we are all still winners.

There is major potential obstacle facing the House No Budget No Pay proposal: the Twenty-Seventh Amendment. The latest amendment to the Constitution simply says that any adjustment to congressional pay cannot take effect until the next Congress is seated. Republican leadership is assuming by placing the pay in escrow and releasing it immediately prior to the end of the current Congress, it will not be in violation of the amendment. The Supreme Court will have to answer this question.

The Republicans are casting No Budget, No Pay as a new idea. It’s not. Driven by No Labels, No Budget, No Pay legislation was proposed early last year. The House bill was sponsored by Representative Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) and at the end of the 112th Congress had 79 co-sponsors. The bill was assigned to the House Administration Committee, chaired by Dan Lungren (R-CA). Rep. Lungren never scheduled the bill for a hearing. The eight-term congressman was defeated in November because of this. The Senate bill was sponsored by Dean Heller (R-Nev.). The bill had 13 co-sponsors and was given a hearing in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, chaired by Senator Joe Liebermann (I-Conn.) in March, 2012. There is a big difference between these bills and what the GOP is proposing now. The original bills required the entire budget process, to include all appropriations bills be passed by October 1 of each year and salary not paid was lost. It would never be paid. The effective date of the legislation was in compliance with the Twenty-Seventh Amendment. The current House proposal only applies to the budget resolution and holds pay in escrow to be paid regardless at the end of the 113th Congress in January, 2015.

The difference in these two approaches is critical. The budget resolution is a non-binding concurrent resolution, agreed to by both chambers after conference but not forwarded to the president, that lays out proposed spending limits allocates funds, and identifies revenue streams. Without requiring the appropriation bills, these are the bills that give the various departments their money and must be signed by the president, there is no assurance there will be a completed budget and the cycle of continuing resolutions broken.

If the House proposal passes constitutional review, this could signal a turning point. If not, I would expect the GOP to once again give in on the small issue of the debt ceiling and put all its energy to inserting spending cuts into the continuing resolution. That will be a return to the status quo.  The American people would go from winners to losers.