The route to a real budget deal
There are glimmers of light in our battle to put America’s finances in order. New hope for a long-term budget deal has come in the form of two ideas, both from outside Congress, that many of our elected officials have embraced:“No Budget, No Pay” and “No Deal, No Break.”
The critical matter now is whether these two initiatives will lead to serious negotiations, or just be rhetorical weapons in Washington’s political warfare.
Both these campaigns speak to substantive needs we have as a nation. “No Budget, No Pay” is a signature campaign of No Labels, a national coalition of Republicans, Democrats and independents advocating that Washington should focus on progress not partisanship. I am a co-founder of this group.
“No Deal, No Break” is a nonpartisan effort supported by my organization, the Comeback American Initiative, and others. It is pushing for Congress to stay in session until a deal is reached.
“No Budget, No Pay” is intended to pressure our politicians by withholding their salaries if they don’t pass a timely budget. Federal law spells out that Congress should pass a budget by April 15 each year. Yet the Senate has not passed a budget in four years, and Congress has not passed a budget and related spending bills on time in 15 years.
This is an abdication of duty, especially since we face a federal financial hole of about $71.5 trillion, a deficit that is growing by $350 billion a month.
To its credit, the GOP leadership in the House of Representatives has endorsed and then passed, with bipartisan support, a version of “No Budget, No Pay.” The legislation then won the support of the Senate and the White House. As a result, both chambers will likely pass a budget by April 15.
But that’s not the end of the story, by a long shot.
The “No Budget, No Pay” legislation that passed is a watered-down version of the plan No Labels supported. Nonetheless it is a major step forward. We need to be realistic, however, about the ways that Congress and the White House can play politics with it.
Our elected officials can technically adhere to “No Budget, No Pay” without moving the ball far enough forward for a meaningful fiscal deal. The Senate and the House can come up with individual budgets. Yet unless these budgets are reconciled, we won’t have the basis for a real fiscal correction. It will be action without concrete results.
Also, a reconciled budget needs to lead to appropriations bills that actually detail how the money will be spent. Until that happens, we won’t have legislation that corresponds to the budget. These steps — a joint budget and appropriations — are trip wires that can undo the progress made by “No Budget, No Pay.”
Our elected officials can’t be allowed to declare victory prematurely and then slide back into nonaction. Congress, in fact, could enact a more comprehensive, substantive and long-term “No Budget, No Pay” bill that will be effective in the next Congress.
“No Deal, No Break” is a similarly strong message that Washington politicians can undermine if we don’t keep on them. The House and Senate take breaks and holidays from their Washington duties that would get the rest of us fired. According to the House calendar, for example, our representatives will be on the job in Washington for less than 50 percent of weekdays in 2013. Not only do they get a full week off for President’s Day and virtually every federal holiday, they take off a “Spring Break” and most of August.
With the sequester threat looming, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other Democrats came out in support of “No Deal, No Break.” Just as I applaud GOP efforts to promote “No Budget, No Pay,” I commend Democrats for embracing “No Deal, No Break.”
But here’s the problem: The deal we need is about far more than addressing the sequester. Our elected officials must agree to a fiscal Grand Bargain in 2013 ‑ or they will have once again punted on the tough decisions that define leadership.
We know the issues that could eventually sink our ship of state: demographics that are predicted to overwhelm our social insurance programs, rising healthcare costs and an outdated, unfair and inadequate tax system.
It will take critical reforms in all these areas to get our economy on a sound footing for the long term. This is the main reason we should insist that our politicians stay in session until a Grand Bargain is accomplished.
Will our elected officials insist they lived up to “No Deal, No Break” by coming to agreement on the sequester? If so, that pledge will be one more missed opportunity for real progress.
I urge everyone to press their elected representatives to take both campaigns seriously. Don’t let them use “No Budget, No Pay” and “No Deal, No Break” as phrases to throw at their opponents, while ignoring the real meaning of these efforts.
PHOTO Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) walks away after handing the gavel to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio.) during the first day of the 113th Congress in the Capitol in Washington January 3, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque