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.

The dirty secret of today's Congress is that many members actually benefit from missing our financial deadlines. When they hold up negotiations, highlight a parochial cause, and take a budget or appropriations bill hostage, they get lots of free publicity and become a hero to the special interests they are protecting. This helps them finance their reelection campaigns. Some of their colleagues will honestly object to the delays, but most are just waiting for their own chance to grandstand. Meanwhile, taxpayers suffer because government agencies are crippled with unpredictable funding starts and stops on a month-to-month or even week-to-week basis. Sometimes a key agency like the Federal Aviation Administration is even forced to shut down many of its operations, as happened last August.

Having experienced (and often envied) their colleagues' selfishness, many members are naturally afraid to be held accountable for the behavior of Congress as a whole. They are particularly afraid to vouch for the other body, either the House or Senate. Social scientists call this a collective action problem. It seems foolish to bet a paycheck that any group of politicians will be prompt. But these doubters have never been in a capitol where everyone was desperate to get paid.

Some fear that wealthy colleagues could afford to grandstand, while poorer members would be deprived of that free publicity. This is possible, but the rich are just as vulnerable to peer group pressure, sometimes more so, because they do not want to be stigmatized for being wealthy. The vast majority of members in the Senate and House need their paychecks and would be quick to ostracize anyone who slowed the budget process down, particularly a rich colleague. Fearing for their positions, party leaders would also make sure that wealthy members were not able to obstruct.

The task is an urgent one. The bill currently has 10 cosponsors in the Senate and 73 in the House. We need more cosponsors now, because there are only a few weeks left in this session of Congress before the November elections. Of course, Congress will miss its October 1 deadline again this year, but passage of No Budget, No Pay this fall would help us meet the deadline next year, in October of 2013. Unless Congress passes No Budget, No Pay this session, no adjustments to congressional pay will be possible until at least 2015, because the 27th Amendment requires an intervening election before any adjustment to congressional pay.

Since no president or Supreme Court has the constitutional power to reform Congress, Congress must heal itself with help from voters back home. Ultimately, Congressional medicine is like veterinary medicine: It must be strong enough to work, and tasty enough to swallow. No Budget, No Pay meets all these tests. It is hugely popular with voters, potent enough to make Congress meet the annual October 1 deadline, and palatable to members once they understand that they will be paid -- because they will finish their work on time.