How to Get Congress on Good Behavior

A U.S. representative suggests: If members of Congress can't pass a budget, we should stop paying their salaries.

Members of the Senate during 2011's emergency budget negotiations. (Reuters)

If taxpayers want better results from Congress, they must stop paying their elected officials for failure. After all, you get what you pay for.

That's why I've introduced a bill called No Budget, No Pay. It's not your typical congressional reform. It is the first effort to pay Congress for performance, the way that an increasing number of doctors, teachers, corporate executives, athletes, and other professionals are paid.

The bill, H.R. 3643, is so simple that it sells itself. If Congress fails to pass a budget and all 12 appropriations bills by the beginning of each fiscal year, October 1, congressional pay will stop. If Congress is even a day late, the penalties could be hundreds of dollars per day per congressman. Longer delays mean greater penalties (and the missed pay cannot be retroactively restored). It's a harsh regime, but a necessary one. Our nation suffers when Congress fails to pay America's bills on time.

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Today's Congress has not passed a budget in three years and has not completed all of its budget and appropriations bills on time in 15 years. Few incumbents can even remember meeting these obligations. This is no way to run a superpower.

Congress is so accustomed to today's back-loaded schedule that it cannot imagine efficiency. Congress barely meets in January and February and, this year, the House was in session for only 10 days in May. Each house delights in passing bills that are dead on arrival in the other body. No Budget, No Pay would make the House and Senate actually talk to one another again. The heat from members to meet the deadline would be so intense that Congress, as a whole, could start forging deals.

A conventional reform would simply levy a flat penalty to punish Congress for tardiness. That's like yanking a teenager's allowance because he misbehaved. The goal should be to encourage better behavior. The threat of cutting congressional pay would do precisely that.

Properly understood, No Budget, No Pay is gentler than you think. It will not result in a single senator or congressman losing any pay. The reason: When everyone has an incentive to meet a deadline, you naturally finish on time, even early. For example, when California legislators tried it, they suddenly got much better at meeting deadlines. This is the power of aligned incentives: When everyone is on the same team, you have a much better chance of winning. The threat of punishment is more effective than the punishment itself.

This new type of reform engages the most powerful lobbyists on earth: congressional spouses. No one wants to miss a paycheck, especially spouses who are tired of excuses. These spouses will force Congress to work much harder much earlier in the winter and spring, instead of procrastinating into the summer and fall. Remember, members' spouses have never let Congress miss a major holiday like Christmas. No Budget, No Pay puts October 1 in the same elite category as December 25.

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Jim Cooper is a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives, serving Nashville and its surrounding areas. More

Jim Cooper has represented Nashville and surrounding areas in the U.S. House of Representatives since 2002. Cooper sits on two House committees, Armed Services and Oversight and Government Reform, and was the lead sponsor of bipartisan legislation to address the issue of the federal deficit. His proposal of a bipartisan fiscal commission became the model for the president's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility led by Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles.

A graduate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Cooper earned a B.A. in history and economics as a Morehead Scholar in 1975. He received a B.A./M.A. in politics and economics as a Rhodes Scholar from Oxford University in 1977, and a J.D. from Harvard Law School in 1980. Currently, Cooper teaches a course on health policy at the Owen School of Business at Vanderbilt University. He and his wife, Martha, live in Nashville and have three children.

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