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 been slack for many years and we used to be able to get away with it, but now we can't," Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., said. "The downgrade of U.S. Treasury bonds last year showed that the financial markets are losing patience and that we need to start adhering to deadlines."
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.
"I'm trying to help people understand that if you don't have a job it has to do with uncertainties in the markets and it has to do with the fact that Washington, D.C., refuses to do its job, which is to tell people what their tax rates are going to be," Heller said. "You take any other Nevadan or any other American and tell them you don't have to do their job for 1,000 days -- they probably don't keep their job."
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.
"It's a hearing on the whole No Labels platform," Lieberman said.
Collins noted 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.
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.