“If you don’t do your work you don’t get paid. Nothing is more fundamental than that. It’s time that Congress paid attention to that principle,” said Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN). Cooper is one of several members in the new Fix Congress Now Caucus confronting his colleagues with the question: Should members of Congress get paid even when work doesn’t get done?
“Congress has missed so many budget deadlines over the years no one takes the deadlines seriously,” Cooper said as he testified at a Senate hearing on his legislation, No Budget, No Pay.
Legislation offered by Cooper and Rep. Scott Rigell (R-VA), supported by 43 members in the House and 6 members in the Senate, would cut the salary of Congress if the budget isn’t done by October 1st of each year. Members currently make $174,000 a year. For 535 people, that’s over $90 million in salaries alone per year. But do Americans believe they get $90 million worth of service? Given Congress’ historically low approval numbers the answer would appear to be no.
Additionally, many members are routinely missing votes. On July 25, 2011, 96 House members missed a vote. When members of the House returned after Easter recess on April 16, 2012, 53 members of Congress didn’t show up to vote. On May 7th, 54 members missed three votes and on February 6, 44 members missed two votes. In September 2011 before the so-called “super committee” failed, 52 House members missed the first vote after the month long August recess.
The sponsors of No Budget No Pay are trying to connect the $174,000 paycheck with productivity. “The approval rating for Congress is where it is for a reason,” said Rep. Reid Ribble (R-WI), one of the bill’s sponsors. “Congress would lose its pay for any delay on the budget after October 1 every year. California has actually tried this and they’ve met their deadlines,” Cooper said.
“We’re only working 7 days during the month of May. We need to do more work earlier in the year so we can meet the Oct. 1 deadline,” Cooper added. Cooper made the point that Congress’ light Washington schedule does not reflect the time needed to work on big issues.
The House has almost never been in session more than three full days during a week since the GOP took over in January 2011. In 2011 and 2012 House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) created schedules that have the House in session only 111 days of 365. There are only 62 days remaining on the legislative calendar left for the rest of 2012.
Many members work hard in their districts and many are worth far more than the $174,000 salary. Judging the work product of members of Congress must be done on a case by a case basis. But is Congress working at a pace that fits the problems at hand?
The national debt is at a record $15 trillion and a debt crisis is looming, a record number 46 million Americans are living below the poverty line and food stamp use is at a record 40 year high, American soldiers are on the battlefield, gasoline is over $4 and unemployment is over 8%. The problems remain large, yet Congress would appear increasingly unable to confront serious challenges as an unending cycle of gridlock and partisanship overtakes the institution.
Just this week, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) threatened yet another debt ceiling showdown like the one seen last summer that damaged the nation’s credit rating and caused Congressional approval ratings to hit historic low.
Rigell has met with Cantor privately on the issue but members supporting “No Work, No Pay” say the leadership is unhappy with the idea and watching them closely.
“The leadership in Congress is very concerned about what we are doing today,” said Cooper.
LAUREN VICTORIA BURKE, Politic365 Chief Congressional Correspondent, publishes the blog Crewof42 on the Congressional Black Caucus. She is heard every Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET on WMCS 1290 in Milwaukee on Earl Ingram’s show The Evening Rush as well as on WPFW every Friday at 6:30 p.m. in Washington DC. You can e-mail her at LBurke007@gmail.com follow her on twitter at @crewof42.