No Labels has many good ideas, and a bad one

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Student volunteers attend the launch of the unaffiliated political organization known as No Labels December 13, 2010 at Columbia University in New York City. The event features numerous politicians, journalists and citizens in a series of panels which address some of the most intractable political issues in America.

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  • No way to "no budget, no pay" #Congress

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  • "No budget, no pay" allows wealthy lawmakers to hold their less well-to-do colleagues hostage

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  • "No budget, no pay" panders to voters' worst instincts about #Congress

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This is House budget week, and with it comes the strong possibility that Republican leaders will bow to the demands of their die-hards and try to alter the deal reached in the Budget Control Act last year that ended the impasse on the debt limit and set caps on discretionary domestic and defense spending.

A GOP budget that insists on spending levels lower than that deal will mean déjà vu all over again, threats of a shutdown on Oct. 1 — great timing, that — at minimum another round of contentious, energy-sapping bargaining over highly charged issues and another set of headaches for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

Through all of this, public approval of Congress continues to reach new lows, although we are getting pretty close to rock bottom. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is fond of saying Congress is reduced to support from blood relatives and paid staff. How long will they stay on board?

With public contempt for Congress (and Washington, D.C., generally) at such highs, it is not surprising that groups that are trying to change things are gaining traction.

"'No budget, no pay' would drive some out of Congress and discourage others to run. I am delighted to find ways to improve the budget process. This is not one of them." - Norman J. OrnsteinOne of them is No Labels, which hopes to change the culture from one dominated by shouting and incivility to something less contentious. No Labels has a number of impressive sponsors and allies, including former Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), major policy figures such as former Comptroller General David Walker, top flight scholars such as Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution and major political actors such as Nancy Jacobson and Mark McKinnon.

The group came out recently with a 12-point plan to “make Congress work” and scored a hearing last week in front of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that focused on some elements of its agenda.

Many of the ideas are good ones, and many have been discussed at length in this space. Those include significant filibuster reform that would streamline the process, up-or-down Senate votes within 90 days for presidential nominees and the kind of scheduling reform (three weeks on, one week off each month, with Congress in session 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday) that I have long advocated.

No Labels also calls for bipartisan seating at major Congressional events, monthly bipartisan gatherings, a bipartisan leadership committee, a pledge to take no pledges except the oath of office and a question period for the president, a la the parliamentary system.

Most of these are good ideas, although most would not be game-changers. Changing the highly charged, tribal politics we have now will not be easy. But one can be skeptical of the magic power of some structural reforms and still support them. And these ideas at least are designed to create a better and stronger Congress that fits what the framers had in mind.

But No Labels lost me when it decided to lead with another idea — the “no budget, no pay” one that was the primary focus of the Senate hearing and has become a rallying cry for the group.

It is working in one sense: The idea has gained traction and given more attention to No Labels than anything else the group has done.

The idea is clear: If Congress does not enact a budget and the appropriations bills that are a core responsibility of Congress by the beginning of the fiscal year, Members would have their pay shut off until the budget is completed. To be sure, the failure to pass budgets or spending bills on time or at all is an embarrassment to Congress. Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), who first raised the idea, is (as I wrote just last week) one of the best and brightest lawmakers we have, and his motives are good ones.

But the fact is that individual lawmakers have little control over budgets and spending bills. The failure to act on them is often more reflective of larger dynamics than of the accumulation of individual votes across party lines to pass a budget through the House and Senate or get spending bills reconciled between the chambers.

I don’t believe much in collective punishment. I like even less the idea that wealthy lawmakers could hold their less well-to-do colleagues hostage, or that we would pile on even more incentives for the wealthy to run and fewer for others to take on the burden.

Nor do I like the idea that grenade-throwing ideological crusaders could use this kind of punishment for their own purposes — one can imagine what additional mischief a Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, could devise if he had the ability to throw a wrench in Congress’ works and stick it to upper-middle-class lawmakers he didn’t like.

But there is another, larger reason I don’t like “no budget, no pay.”

To me it is pandering of the worst sort, playing to voters’ worst instincts about Congress.

The skepticism Americans feel about Congress goes back to the beginning and is ingrained in our culture; satirists and comedians from Mark Twain to Will Rogers to Jay Leno have exploited it to the hilt.

But skepticism has degenerated into a corrosive and dangerous cynicism and anger. Cutting lawmakers’ pay, trashing Congress for pay raises, howling about presumed perks like a five-star dining room, a lavish beauty salon, a posh gym, all free and paid for by taxpayers (and all wrong, of course) fan the flames in a dangerous way. But they are oh so easy to do.

Given the fact that campaigns for Congress are now focused on trashing the character and integrity of the candidates, with the mud level rising after Citizens United, and given the punishing lives Members of Congress lead, it is a wonder now that we get any serious, problem-solving individuals to take on the task.

“No budget, no pay” would drive some out of Congress and discourage others to run. I am delighted to find ways to improve the budget process. This is not one of them.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at AEI.

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