There’s hope for the 90 percent of Americans who think members of Congress should pay a price for doing such a bum job of tackling the nation’s problems. The good news is that bipartisanship briefly broke out on Capitol Hill before Christmas. In an increasingly rare display of congressional comity, a Senate Republican and a House Democrat introduced legislation that would block pay to lawmakers whenever Congress fails to approve a budget for the new fiscal year.
The idea that lawmakers should not get paid unless they do one of the most basic jobs they are sent to Congress to do is the brainchild of Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) and No Labels, a year-old citizens group made up of Republicans, Democrats and independents. Congress has not approved a budget on time for nearly three years. Members of Congress make $174,000 a year and would be docked a day’s pay for every day they miss their Oct. 1 deadline. To add some teeth to the measure, no retroactive pay would be allowed.
Evan Bayh, a former Democratic senator from Indiana, says the “No Budget, No Pay Act” concept worked in California, where the legislature perennially failed to meet its budget deadline until it passed a similar measure. The state’s latest budget was adopted after only a week’s delay. S. 1981 is co-sponsored by Sens. John Boozman (R-Ark.), Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and David Vitter (R-La.). Cooper’s bill, H.R. 3643, is co-sponsored by Ben Chandler (D-Ky.).
The move may be significant, as many observers believe that what Congress does, or fails to do, sets the tone for business activity throughout the country. They point to the fractious debate last summer over raising the debt ceiling that cast such a pall over the markets for weeks on end.
The recreational boating industry is especially susceptible to the prevailing winds that blow from Capitol Hill, where hyper-partisanship has led to gridlock amid slow economic growth and continuing high unemployment.
Let’s face facts. People don’t have to buy boats. The odds are they won’t be buying boats like they used to until they feel a whole lot more confident about where the economy is headed. Watching the partisans on Capitol Hill play chicken with the nation’s business month after month is simply feeding the unease of the average American.
But making Congress work and providing it a new heading is at the core of the confidence-building measures being advocated by No Labels, a non-partisan organization founded more than a year ago and claiming a membership of nearly 200,000 Americans (www.nolabels.org). Its founders represent a broad swath: journalists, policy wonks and inside-the-Beltway types who have worked within the system — watched it self-destruct — and now want to make it work. Among its co-founders are former U.S. comptroller general David Walker; Mark McKinnon, a former adviser to President George W. Bush; Kiki McLean, a former adviser to Vice President Al Gore; and Bill Galston, a former adviser to President Clinton.
Although the No Budget, No Pay Act is grabbing headlines, it is just one small step in a comprehensive campaign to create systemic change in Washington through the implementation of a 12-point “Make Congress Work” action plan that includes the following proposals:
• Second only to passing a budget is putting an end to the virtual Senate filibuster in which just the threat of requiring a 60-vote supermajority grinds everything to a halt. If senators want to halt action on a bill, they must take to the floor and hold it through sustained debate, as Jimmy Stewart did in the classic film, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” A corollary proposal would change House and Senate procedures to fast-track legislation with majority support.
• Taking a page from our friends in the U.K. is a proposal that would require the president to appear before Congress once a month to answer questions from lawmakers.
• Another sensible proposal would establish a five-day workweek for three weeks a month in Washington, D.C., followed by one week at home. This would put an end to Congress’ habit of legislating from Tuesday to Thursday and bolting for long weekends.
• Much of the bile building in Congress results from often secretive “holds” that are put on nominations for executive and judicial positions. Another major reform would require that all presidential nominations be confirmed or rejected within 90 days after the Senate receives the completed nomination. If no vote is taken, the nominee would be confirmed by default.
• Special interest groups have become very adept at convincing legislators that they should sign this or that “pledge” to vote a certain way or face the consequences. This proposal would require that members of Congress be bound by no pledges except their oath of office.
• One reason there is so much more partisanship in Congress of late is that members of both parties are walled off from each other. Three very modest proposals would help build bridges by eliminating partisan seating in all joint meetings or sessions and on committees and subcommittees, instituting monthly (off-the-record) non-partisan gatherings in each chamber and establishing a non-partisan Congressional Leadership Committee to ensure that there is a regular and high-level forum to discuss work on solving the nation’s problems.
• No Labels believes the American people deserve to know what’s really happening with our nation’s finances and that Congress should at least be able to work off the same set of numbers. To boost such accountability, an annual report to a joint session of Congress on America’s fiscal condition, coordinated and delivered by a high-ranking non-partisan official, such as the comptroller general, is recommended.
• Lastly, although all of the foregoing proposals make sense, one that would bar incumbents from one party from conducting negative campaigns against sitting members of the opposing party seems downright un-American to me. Although I can understand the hope behind such an idea, I can’t imagine it ever becoming a reality.
That said, I believe these proposals would go a long way toward breaking gridlock, reducing polarization and promoting constructive debate. Although many of the ideas seem pretty basic, I would say — as a veteran of some 35 years working for and with Congress — that such reforms could spark a revolutionary change in the way our lawmakers conduct the nation’s business. In the end, this can only be good for business.
For an interesting video about how the nation’s pundits view these proposals, go to www.nolabels.org, click on the “Blog” button and look for “Media Coverage of Make Congress Work.”
Michael Sciulla testified more than 30 times on Capitol Hill during a 28-year career at BoatUS, where he managed the organization’s government relations and public affairs operations while serving as editor of its 650,000-circulation flagship publication.
This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue.