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'No Budget, No Pay' is no-brainer

January 23, 2013 -- Updated 2013 GMT (0413 HKT)
John Avlon says Congress members' pay should be put in escrow until they pass a budget.
John Avlon says Congress members' pay should be put in escrow until they pass a budget.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Avlon: Most people who fail to do their jobs don't get paid
  • Avlon: Congress hasn't passed a budget in nearly four years
  • Congress has passed a budget on time only four times in 30 years, he writes
  • Avlon: House GOP backs bill that would dock lawmakers' pay till budget is passed

Editor's note: John Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is co-editor of the book "Deadline Artists: America's Greatest Newspaper Columns." He is a regular contributor to "Erin Burnett OutFront" and is a member of the OutFront Political Strike Team. For more political analysis, tune in to "Erin Burnett OutFront" at 7 ET weeknights.

(CNN) -- If you don't get the job done at work, you won't get paid.

But Congress plays by its own rules. Specifically, Congress hasn't passed a budget in almost four years. This is basic -- and required by law. Congress seems to think it's bigger than the law, however, which might help explain one recent poll that found it less popular than root canals, cockroaches and Donald Trump.

That's why an act passed in the House on Wednesday deserves widespread support, as well as Senate passage. It's called "No Budget, No Pay," and it means what it says.

John P. Avlon
John P. Avlon

If members of Congress can't pass a budget on time, they wouldn't get paid until they did. Sadly, this low bar seems high. In fact, according to the Washington Post, Congress has passed spending bills on time only four times in the past 30 years.

This is your money. And our elected representatives seem to have forgotten that presenting a stable plan on how to spend the money is a basic part of their job description. Instead, Washington has gotten used to living from continuing resolution to continuing resolution. This ain't the way it's supposed to be. In fact, it is a violation of the 1974 Budget Control Act (PDF).

But somehow, breaking the laws they set for themselves doesn't seem to be an urgent concern to these Congresscrats, despite the fact that the U.S. government spent $3.7 trillion last year (PDF).

The absence of a budget doesn't just violate common sense; there are real dollars and cents costs. Without a budget, it becomes difficult for government to make long-term spending decisions that affect us all.

Where's our budget?
Fiscal cliff metaphor madness

Now, House Republicans have seized on this idea as part of their bid to extend the debt ceiling deadline until mid-May. To be clear, this is just kicking the can, but it's still a responsible step in the right direction.

"No Budget, No Pay" was originally proposed by No Labels, a group of Democrats, Republicans and independents dedicated to the politics of problem-solving. I helped found the citizens' group in 2010 with Mark McKinnon, Nancy Jacobson, Bill Galston, Lisa Borders, Kiki McLean, David Walker and many others. The proposal was the cornerstone of the "Make Congress Work" plan released last year.

The idea was quickly adopted by Republican Dean Heller in the Senate and Democrat Jim Cooper in the House. But it met stiff resistance from other members of Congress who didn't like the idea of personal accountability for institutional dysfunction.

Now, suddenly, after the election results of 2012, there is renewed interest in the idea, largely because it resonates with constituents as such a common sense proposal. "No Budget, No Pay" is a no-brainer.

The proposal is getting support from more than the GOP House leadership. A large number of centrist "Blue Dog Democrats" have announced their intention to vote for the measure, and the White House released a statement saying it would not try to oppose the measure because it would at least provide a "short term solution to the debt limit."

According to the bill, if lawmakers didn't pass a budget by April 15, their pay would be docked and put in an escrow account until they found a way to work together on this front. Not incidentally, that's also the reason "No Budget, No Pay" does not violate the 27th Amendment, which forbids salary increases or reductions during a current Congress: Their salary is not being reduced, it is being withheld until they actually do their job.

Time and time again in this divided, dysfunctional Congress, we have seen partisan gridlock fall away only when members' self-interest is at stake. That's why we see the flurry of activity at the end of the year, when members of Congress want to get home for the holidays. Docking their pay would get their attention and focus their mind.

Let me be clear: A long-term solution to the debt ceiling debacles still needs to be found. Congress is now the greatest single impediment to American economic recovery, in large part because a bloc of 50 or so votes on the far right seems enamored with playing chicken with our country's full faith and credit.

The last time we went through this idiotic ideological exercise, America got its AAA credit rating downgraded. Standard and Poors stated the reason clearly: "The effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policymaking and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenges."

But the House GOP vote to at least extend the debt-ceiling deadline and impose a common sense measure like "No Budget, No Pay" is sign of sanity at the start of the second Obama term. It will not solve all our problems, but at least by imposing a degree of personal accountability on members of Congress, it might encourage constructive cooperation instead of last-minute scrambles and hyperpartisan brinksmanship.

If patriotic conscience can't compel Congress to work together, maybe requiring them to have some personal skin in the game will inspire them to do their job.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.

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