Sunday, Feb. 10, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Passing a one-year version of Sen. Dean Heller’s “No Budget, No Pay” Act last week was supposed to be Congress’ stern warning to itself to end what has become customary, semi-annual hysteria over the possibility of a government shutdown.
The prescription seemed quite simple: produce a budget for next year or, quite literally, pay the consequences.
But so far, things aren’t off to a particularly promising start.
President Barack Obama missed his customary deadline to submit a budget request on Feb. 4. He plans to send it to Congress after Tuesday’s State of the Union address — but the extra time still likely will delay the Democrats’ draft.
House lawmakers spent Wednesday passing a bill that insists Obama’s budget erase the deficit within 10 years — something no budget proposal, Republican or Democrat, has yet achieved.
And the two leaders of Congress, House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, spent the balance of the week volleying over whether lawmakers should offset the pending automatic budget cuts — worth $109 billion, or about 3 percent of the annual budget — a little at a time, or at all.
That’s not exactly comforting when Congress is staring down two budget deadlines — one on March 31 and another on April 15.
But the “No Budget, No Pay” bill was never designed to solve Congress’ budgeting problem — just make it seem like there was a solution.
“No Budget, No Pay” set out to make Congress do one important thing that hasn’t happened for at least four years: pass a budget through the official, step-by-step procedure that’s on the books so the country doesn’t keep coming to the brink of bankruptcy.
Heller’s bill boiled down to two main parts: House and Senate lawmakers would have to pass a concurrent budget resolution to define projected revenue intake, planned spending outlays and detailed, category-by-category principles for the appropriators to follow later. Then, lawmakers would have to pass all 12 appropriations bills before the start of the fiscal year.
Miss those deadlines or shirk on the requirements and lawmakers in both houses of Congress would put part or all of their annual salaries — $174,000 for rank-and-file lawmakers, $193,500 for party leaders (including Reid) and $223,500 for the speaker of the House — in jeopardy.
“If they miss the deadline for any of these items, then their pay is withheld,” Heller spokeswoman Chandler Smith said. “Sound fiscal policies start with passing a budget and then passing all spending bills on time.”
At the time, Heller’s colleagues couldn’t agree on what to make of it. Sen. Joe Lieberman called it “a scream ... that has to be heard.” Harry Reid called it “stupid.” Few signed on.
House lawmakers redrafted “No Budget, No Pay” to fit as a component piece in a bill to suspend the national debt limit until mid-May, and they made three important changes: First, the threat of losing pay only applies to fiscal 2014 instead of being a permanent change.
Second, lawmakers only have to meet the April 15 deadline for passing a budget resolution to secure their pay — there is no penalty for failing to appropriate that money afterwards.
Third: Though House and Senate lawmakers both still have to pass a budget resolution framework, the two houses of Congress don’t actually have to agree on what they each pass.
And the bonus provision: They never actually lose their pay — it is held in escrow until the budget is completed or, failing that, the 113th Congress ends, at which point they get the back pay in a lump sum.
“I think probably the most consequential change is that this applies to the budget resolution but not to the appropriations bills,” said William Galston, a budget expert with the Brookings Institution. Galston helped launch the nonpartisan advocacy group No Labels, which backed Heller’s “No Budget, No Pay” bill early on.
Omitting the appropriations process from the requirements that lawmakers fulfill to be paid leaves little incentive to keep the process out of the backroom negotiations that have come to define budgeting.
Since fiscal 2010, Congress has funded the country through a series of continuing resolutions — most of which were hammered out between Reid, Boehner and other leaders — instead of put through the full appropriations process. Democrats have defended this type of budgeting as perfectly serviceable, but Republicans — and Galston — have complained that it is a sign of the Senate shirking its duty.
Galston said the watered-down version of “No Budget, No Pay” that passed Congress was a meaningful step forward for being “the first time Congress has taken on itself the principle of personal responsibility.”
But while agreeing to that principle may inspire lawmakers to learn the legislative dance of adopting a budget framework, it will not force them to agree on budget parameters in practice.
For one thing, budget resolutions can pass purely on a majority vote, meaning that absent disorder in the ranks, Democrats and Republicans won’t have to hammer out a harmonious accord to pass their preferred budget frameworks.
Under a normal budgeting process — and the original bill — the House and Senate’s work would not be complete until their budget resolutions matched. The difficulty of striking that accord is part of why budget resolutions are so elusive.
During the last term, differences between the two houses frequently pitched the country to the brink of crisis.
House and Senate lawmakers came to near blows over the debt ceiling in 2011. They were just as bitterly split over an extension of the payroll tax cut a few months later, a standoff that only ended after senators like Heller and then-Sen. Scott Brown openly called on House Republicans to quit putting up a fight. And who can forget New Year’s Day, when a “fiscal cliff” compromise that found overwhelming, bipartisan support in the Senate almost failed before the House.
Bitter divisions between the House and Senate stretched debates and dealmaking into the eleventh hour.
There is nothing to prevent that from happening again.
But if the final impact of the new law feels a little inconclusive, it’s not really Heller’s fault. He tried — and is trying — for more.
Heller’s original legislation would have made the threat of losing lawmaker salaries permanent. Lawmakers also wouldn’t be eligible for a lump sum payment of retroactive wages at the end of the fiscal year. And it would have made passing a final appropriations bill — in other words, agreement between the House and Senate — a necessary final step to securing lawmakers’ regular paychecks.
That more permanent version — which Heller is still pushing for — might better force lawmakers into a more organized, if not entirely conciliatory, budgeting habit.