'No budget, no pay' advances despite reservations
In an earlier era, a move like the one engineered by House GOP leaders to pass a "no budget, no pay" measure probably would have been stopped in its tracks.
But with Congress' approval ratings in the gutter, House lawmakers pushed aside questions about fairness and constitutionality and tacked the idea on to an unpopular, must-pass measure to increase the government's borrowing cap.
The measure temporarily would withhold pay from any member of the House or Senate whose chamber doesn't pass a budget this year. The Senate is expected to approve it in the coming week, but only after leaders make clear they think "no budget, no pay" is rife with flaws and is not going to be repeated.
The proposal is before the Senate because the House breezed past objections that the idea is unconstitutional because it could "vary" the pay of lawmakers in violation of the 27th Amendment to the Constitution. The House ignored concerns that the measure is unfair to members who are in the minority and are powerless to determine whether a budget passes or not.
Nearly unmentioned was the prospect that withholding lawmakers' pay favors wealthy members over those of more modest means and could, in theory, attract more affluent candidates better able to withstand having some of their $174,000 salary withheld.
"The last thing we want to do is to say to people running for Congress, 'If you're not a millionaire, don't run because there's no guarantee you'll be paid,'" said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.
For these reasons and more, the idea went nowhere in the last congressional session. But it was embraced about a week ago by House GOP leaders such as Speaker John Boehner of Ohio as they struggled to avoid a potential market-crippling default on government obligations.
The proposal is a slap at the Democratic-controlled Senate, which hasn't passed a budget since 2009. Republicans advanced the measure as a one-year experiment rather than a permanent law.
The logic behind "no budget, no pay" goes like this: Passing a budget is the core responsibility of Congress, so why should lawmakers get paid if they don't do their main job?
"The hardworking people that I represent wouldn't be paid if they didn't show up and they didn't do their job," said Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick, R-Pa. "And this place should operate no differently."
For Republicans, much of the appeal of the measure was that it was a rare opportunity to cram something down the Senate's throat. Two years of polarizing battles over issues big and small have left little good will between the GOP-run House and the Democratic-controlled Senate.
In the Senate, traditionalists such as Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., opted to set aside their concerns and avoid the task of beating back such an irresistible message. Reid also welcomed the reprieve from a potential economy-rattling government debt crisis.
"The House Republicans had to add a gimmick or two to the bill, but I understand, we all understand," Reid told reporters. "The tea party plays a big part in what goes on in the House and they need a gimmick or two to get things done over there. But to spare the middle class another knock-down, drag-out fight we are going to ... get it out of here as quickly as we can."