Having failed to accomplish anything of note in the least accomplished U.S. House in American history, U.S. Rep. Steve Daines seeks promotion to the Senate.
With no record to run on, he kicked off his campaign by advocating a bill that has languished in a House committee since he introduced it more than a year ago. The Balanced Budget Accountability Act would withhold pay from Congress should it fail to pass a balanced budget.
The bill has a certain superficial appeal, so it is worth considering how bad an idea this truly is. Let’s look at four reasons.
First, budgets are slippery things to balance. Neither revenues nor expenses are entirely predictable. Rep. Daines’ bill would require the Congressional Budget Office to certify that the budget passed by Congress was in balance.
You may be familiar with the CBO. That’s the office that continues to predict that Obamacare will reduce the federal deficit. Find a Republican who believes that and you will find a Republican who won’t survive a primary challenge. Budget balancing is the job of Congress, not of federal bureaucrats.
Second, many perfectly sane economists think it is a smart idea for the federal government to run deficits at certain times: during wartime, for instance, or national emergencies, or even during the sort of full-fledged economic collapse that appeared imminent when President Obama took office.
I’m not enough of an economist to evaluate how smart that idea really is, but it’s not my job to be that smart. It’s Congress’ job to argue these issues out during budget talks. Rep. Daines’ bill would simply take this important discussion off the table.
Third, American politics already is disproportionately driven by money. Rep. Daines’ act would up the ante.
True, most members of Congress don’t really need their paychecks. More than half are already millionaires. And it is hard to feel much sympathy for the rest because they are pulling in $174,000 a year, plus perks, to represent us.
But while the doors of Congress are increasingly closed to people of ordinary means, it’s still lovely to think that a few might get elected now and then. Imagine this situation: The wife in a Montana ranching family, Mrs. Smith, let’s say, goes to Washington. Not long after she is sworn into Congress, her husband is killed in a ranching accident.
She considers resigning to take care of the ranch, but the kids are in high school and just about old enough to take care of themselves. Besides, cattle prices are down and she needs that government paycheck. So she remains in office.
But $174,000 a year doesn’t go as far as you might think. She has medical and legal expenses from her husband’s death. The ranch has debts. She is maintaining two households, and Washington is an expensive town. Extra help is needed on the ranch and to ensure that the kids are clean and fed.
One day as she is weighing which household bills to pay, a few key members of Congress drop by her office to seek her support for a balanced budget. She believes that budgets ought to be balanced, but she considers portions of their proposal to be unconstitutional, unethical and just plain unwise.
They really want her vote. She resists. They warn her that she will go unpaid if their bill doesn’t pass, and they can hold out a lot longer without pay than she can.
We need not continue this scenario to its wretched conclusion. Let’s just stop right here and ask: How much time do you want members of Congress to spend weighing their own personal incomes against the best interests of their constituents and their country?
The answer, I think, is zero. Members of Congress ought to vote their consciences without fear of losing their paycheck – except at election time. Rep. Daines would take a political system already drenched in cash and drown it.
Finally, Rep. Daines’ bill would further entrench an already dangerous precedent. The No Budget, No Pay Act of 2013, signed into law by President Obama, was designed to withhold congressional pay until a budget was passed or the legislative session ended, whichever came first.
That was easy. Passing a budget is Congress’ most fundamental duty, and pay would only temporarily be withheld. Rep. Daines argues that balancing the budget is fundamental, too, a logical extension of the first bill.
Yes, and it takes little imagination to picture a whole array of similar bills, each revolving around some legislator’s view of Congress’ fundamental duties and each holding hostage any member of Congress who held out.
That’s no way to run a country. That Rep. Daines has not yet learned that lesson says volumes about his candidacy.