WASHINGTON — It might be dismissed as an election year gimmick by the big shots who run Capitol Hill, but frustration over Congress' failure to pass a budget since 2009 has given surprising momentum to a bill that would cut off lawmakers' pay if they can't — or won't — pass a budget blueprint.
The "no budget, no pay" idea is still a long shot, but it's actually getting an official hearing Wednesday from the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee as part of a package of congressional reform proposals from a centrist group called No Labels.
The idea is simple. If Congress doesn't pass a budget and all 12 of the accompanying spending bills setting annual agency budgets on time, every lawmaker's paycheck would get cut off. No exceptions.
"Congress has missed so many budget and appropriations deadlines over the years that no one takes these deadlines seriously," Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., said. "We often fund programs on a short-term basis, sometimes month-to-month or even week-to-week. Political standoffs have even led to complete government shutdowns. This is inexcusable. We no longer have 'one nation, under God, indivisible,' but 'one nation, yet again, interrupted.'"
No Labels is a 500,000-member group started a little more than a year ago by both Democrats and Republicans in hopes of easing the partisanship and gridlock that has engulfed Washington, which it says is a place overtaken by political games and pettiness.
"The parties have organized themselves into warring clans that value defeating the other side over even the most basic acts of governing, like passing a budget on time," a statement on the group's website says.
The last time Congress passed a budget was 1,050 days ago, way back in 2009. That's not the end of the world since the annual congressional budget resolution is a nonbinding measure that mostly sets goals for follow-up legislation like the annual appropriations bills. If there isn't a budget resolution in place, such legislation — or bills like last month's extension of payroll tax cuts — can still go forward.
Since Congress' budget often doesn't have much of an impact, congressional leaders sometimes cancel the debate altogether — especially in election years, when votes on it can expose rank and file lawmakers to political risk.
But the failure of Congress to pass a budget is symptomatic of the broader failure of the institution to accomplish feats that not long ago were considered relatively routine. And there's a simple, powerful political appeal to the idea that if members of Congress don't do their most basic job, they shouldn't get paid.
The top Senate sponsor is Sen. Dean Heller, a Nevada Republican who, not surprisingly, is embroiled in a difficult re-election campaign. He says the inability of Congress to tackle the debt or figure out what to do when the Bush-era tax cuts expire at the end of the year is contributing to the weak economic recovery.
"Too many in Congress have come to expect an honest day's pay whether or not they've actually accomplished the work of the people," Heller said in testimony on Wednesday. "Members of Congress are indeed out of touch with the American people if they believe they should be rewarded for a job poorly done, or not done at all."
Other lawmakers, however, aren't so keen on the idea, starting with the chairman and top Republican of the panel holding Wednesday's hearing, Sens. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn, and Susan Collins, R-Maine. The panel has jurisdiction over Cooper and Heller's legislation, but the hearing will focus on other ideas as well, such as requiring senators who filibuster bills to actually stay on the floor and talk the legislation to death, banning filibusters of presidential nominees and requiring monthly bipartisan get-to-know-you sessions among lawmakers.
"This proposal is like a legislative scream," Lieberman said. "As everybody knows, the public's estimation of Congress is at historic lows. And there's ample reason why that is so. Congress is just not fulfilling some of the basic responsibilities that the Constitution gives us."
Heller acknowledged that some of his colleagues think the idea is just a "talking point" instead of a serious idea.
Collins is among those opposed to the "no budget, no pay" measure. She points out that there are many rich people in the Senate who might not care whether they get paid or not.
"Given how many wealthy members there are — of which I am not one, regrettably — I wonder whether it would really have the kind of impact that its sponsors believe it would," Collins said Tuesday.
A related idea by Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., to prevent the House and Senate from taking up any legislation — of any kind — if it hasn't passed a budget by the April 15 deadline has support from Kent Conrad, D-N.D., the chairman of the budget panel. And both Democrats and Republicans have rallied behind the idea of doing a budget every two years instead of annually.