One reason Congress is so dysfunctional is that wealthy lawmakers are insulated from everyday concerns like getting paid.
This week, as part of a compromise to ward off a debt ceiling showdown and potential default, the House approved the No Budget, No Pay Act, which would withhold lawmakers’ paychecks starting April 15 unless they pass a budget. If you haven’t been keeping up with GOP talking points, this is the latest attempt to pressure Senate Democrats into producing a budget resolution, which they haven’t done in the last four years for various inane parliamentary reasons. But whatever you think of its intent, it’s an empty gesture and one that highlights the troubling disconnect between average Americans and their elected officials.
Despite its gimmicky origins, No Budget, No Pay has a certain intuitive appeal. As centrist commentator John Avlon writes, “If you don’t get the job done at work, you won’t get paid.” Sure, you or I would probably just get fired, but we don’t have gerrymandering to save us. Still, why should we reward Harry Reid and his crew for shirking their responsibilities while House Republicans have been keeping their noses to the grindstone and dutifully passing Paul Ryan’s Ayn Rand fan fiction?
For one thing, it’s unconstitutional. Not “unconstitutional” in the wingnut sense that cutting the crusts off your sandwich is unconstitutional if there’s a photo of Barack Obama doing it, but unconstitutional in the sense that the 27th Amendment specifically prohibits Congress from mucking around with its own pay unless there’s an intervening election. To get around this little detail, the act is designed so that the members’ checks get deposited into an escrow account until a) they pass a budget or b) the term ends in 2014, at which point they get paid in full either way. In other words, it’s less of a threat to their livelihood and more of an experiment in delayed gratification.
But a more significant problem is that most legislators probably couldn’t care less if their pay was withheld indefinitely. As of 2011, the average estimated wealth of members of Congress was $6.5 million in the House and $13.9 million in the Senate. And unlike many of their constituents, they haven’t exactly been struggling through lean times recently. While average American households saw their median net worth drop 39 percent from 2007 to 2010, lawmakers’ rose 5 percent during the same period. That’s not to say that every member of Congress is set for life; some are deep in debt like true red-blooded Americans. But threats to withhold pay are ineffective when most of our representatives have enough money in their rainy day funds to last them through monsoon season. And if worst comes to worst, they can always exit through the revolving door and join a few corporate boards to replenish their bank accounts.
This points to a larger problem with our political system, which is just how far removed our policymakers are from the lives and concerns of ordinary Americans. In a 2005 study, Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels found that:
[S]enators appear to be considerably more responsive to the opinions of affluent constituents than to the opinions of middle-class constituents, while the opinions of constituents in the bottom third of the income distribution have no apparent statistical effect on their senators’ roll call votes.
Read that again: if you’re a low-income voter, you and your policy preferences might as well not exist as far as your senators are concerned. While Bartels doesn’t provide a definitive explanation for these findings, he notes that “the fact that senators are themselves affluent, and in many cases extremely wealthy, hardly seems irrelevant.” Being rich frames the way our elected officials see the world, shapes their social circles, and determines their legislative priorities. In that sense, wealth is the incubator that hatches Washington’s deficit hawks.
Of course, wealth alone doesn’t determine a person’s politics. FDR was no pauper, but he fought for the common good and was labeled a class traitor for his efforts. But noblesse oblige isn’t what it used to be, and today’s well-heeled lawmakers seem more interested in scoring political points than addressing mass unemployment and soaring inequality. No Budget, No Pay won’t do anything to change that, and any consensus budget that it did produce would undoubtedly be laden with more unnecessary cuts to domestic spending and the social safety net. It’s a fair point that lawmakers shouldn’t get paid for a job they’re not doing, but they’re so insulated from reality that no amount of negative reinforcement short of voting them out of office is likely to have a significant impact. And until that happens, we don’t need more gimmicks to make them fall in line and pass an austerity budget. What we could use is a lot more traitors.
Tim Price is Deputy Editor of Next New Deal. Follow him on Twitter @txprice.