The Tennessean: Rep. Jim Cooper's 'no budget, no pay' bill gains momentum

Mar 19, 2012
Press Release

Cooper's 'no budget, no pay' bill gains momentum
The Tennessean
March 15, 2012
By Elizabeth Bewley

WASHINGTON — A long-shot proposal by Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper to cut off lawmakers’ pay when they miss budget deadlines is gaining traction in Congress.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held a hearing Wednesday on the measure, which would cut off lawmakers’ pay if they fail to pass an overall budget and all 12 spending bills financing government agencies before the Oct. 1 beginning of each fiscal year. Lawmakers couldn’t be paid retroactively, either.

Cooper introduced the bill in December after one of his Nashville constituents asked him why Congress could miss its deadlines while the public had to pay taxes on time, he said. Tennessee Republican Reps. Diane Black and Scott DesJarlais are among the bill’s 34 House co-sponsors.

Republican Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada introduced a similar bill in the Senate with six co-sponsors.

Critics see the proposal as an election-year gimmick that won’t go anywhere on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers miss budget deadlines far more frequently than they meet them. It’s been three years since Congress passed a full budget measure through the normal legislative process, and 14 years since it passed all spending bills on time.

Congressional budgets aren’t strictly necessary because they are non-binding resolutions that set targets for later spending bills. But delays in passing spending bills have led to threats of government shutdown and uncertainty about funding levels for popular programs.

“Congress has missed so many budget and appropriations deadlines that really no one takes these deadlines seriously,” Cooper testified at Wednesday’s hearing. “We run government on a month-to-month, even week-to-week basis. This is no way to run a superpower.”

Cooper said his proposal would stand “zero chance of passage” in a normal year, but it’s gaining momentum as congressional approval ratings hover near single digits.

“I think this year is different,” he said. “I think the public is so tired of our blame games that we’re going to act.”

Idea is popular

Eighty-eight percent of people polled think members of Congress should not be paid unless they pass budgets on time, according to a recent survey by the centrist group No Labels. Cooper’s proposal is one of the 12 steps the 500,000-member group recommended to reduce gridlock in Congress.

“We’re at one of those junctures in American history where good judgment and good politics coincide,” said Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman from Virginia who co-founded No Labels.

But other lawmakers aren’t crazy about the “no budget, no pay” idea, including the chairman of the committee holding Wednesday’s hearing, independent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, and its top Republican, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.

Lieberman questioned whether the measure would solve the fundamental problems of partisanship and a broken budget process, while Collins said rank-and-file members don’t control the budget process and shouldn’t be penalized for missed deadlines.

“The power to negotiate a budget through committee and bring it up for a vote on the Senate floor is not equally shared by all members, no matter how forcefully those of us who are not in the leadership may advocate for a budget,” Collins said.

Some critics argue that wealthy members of Congress might not care whether they’re paid. Others say the bill could force lawmakers to pass spending bills hastily, without proper consideration.

But Cooper and Heller said spending bills can and should be passed on time — and the proposal would give lawmakers one more incentive to do so.

“These deadlines have been met before, and now is the time to start meeting those deadlines again,” Heller said.

Other congressional reform proposals discussed at the hearing included passing budgets that cover two fiscal years instead of one and requiring senators who filibuster to actually remain talking at length on the Senate floor — in keeping with how filibusters were originally designed to work as a delaying tactic.

Currently, senators can delay legislation merely by signaling an intent to filibuster.