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Dock their pay, arrest senators. Lawmakers propose punishment for missing budget deadlines

If Congress can't get its act together and keep the government running, lawmakers' pay should be docked. Or senators should be required to stick near the Capitol - and even face arrest - if they don’t stay to hammer out a resolution. The Capitol Building as seen in Washington, Dec. 8, 2016.
If Congress can't get its act together and keep the government running, lawmakers' pay should be docked. Or senators should be required to stick near the Capitol - and even face arrest - if they don’t stay to hammer out a resolution. The Capitol Building as seen in Washington, Dec. 8, 2016. AP

If Congress can't keep the government running, lawmakers' pay should be docked.

Or senators should be required to stick around the Capitol – and even face arrest – if they don’t stay to hammer out a resolution.

With the unlikely, but not impossible, specter of a government shutdown looming at the end of this month, lawmakers are floating various proposals that seek to inflict pain on themselves and their colleagues in a bid to avoid even a partial shuttering of the federal government.

Among the ideas: Reducing or suspending congressional salaries.

“In every other profession, if you don’t do your job, you don’t get paid,” said Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., who has introduced legislation to slice lawmakers’ pay by a day, every day, during a shutdown. “Why on earth should we be any different?”

Schrader first introduced his bill to cut congressional pay after a band of lawmakers prompted a partial government shutdown in 2013, refusing to vote for a budget that included money for then President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Schrader also backs the No Budget, No Pay Act, which would suspend congressional salaries entirely if Congress misses a budget deadline.

That’s similar to the No Government, No Pay Act, which would also end congressional salaries during shutdowns.

“It’s time for Congress to start living in the real world, where you either do your job or you don’t get paid,” said bill sponsor Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn.

The legislation that keeps the government running expires April 28, but congressional leadership in the House and Senate say the possibility of slipping into a shutdown is exceedingly remote, even though lawmakers return April 24 from a two-week recess with just days to complete a deal.

President Trump hits his 100th day in office on April 29 and Republicans are loathe to mark the date with a shutdown, though there are outstanding issues, including his request for money for a U.S.-Mexico border wall.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was optimistic that punitive legislation wouldn’t be necessary: “We’re making significant progress,” he told reporters on Thursday. “I feel very good about the momentum and so I don’t want to start getting into who’s going to be naughty and nice.”

The need for congressional action is not unprecedented. Dozens of members of Congress during the 2013 shutdown elected to show solidarity with furloughed government workers by electing to have their paychecks withheld, or contributed to charity during the shutdown.

Members of the House and Senate earn $174,000 a year. But the 27th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution makes the withholding of pay problematic. The amendment forbids any “change” in members’ pay during a congressional period to prevent lawmakers from being able to raise their salaries.

The 16-day budget shutdown in 2013 was prompted by Republican opposition to paying for Obamacare. The legislative efforts to avoid similar shutdowns have mostly been filed by Democrats.

Colorado senators are taking a bipartisan approach, filing legislation that would force senators to stay on or near the Senate floor in the wake of a shutdown until the government is reopened. It even calls for the Senate’s sergeant at arms to find and arrest missing senators if they fail to show up for work.

“It’s one more message to the American people, that we aren’t going to just point fingers, we’re going to get the job done,” said Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., whose Democratic counterpart, Sen. Michael Bennet approached him with the idea for the legislation. “This forces people to be here, on the Senate floor, working it out and finding solutions.”

Fellow lawmakers, who expect budget negotiators to avoid a shutdown, questioned the value of the legislation. But at least one endorsed another bill, which calls for allowing spending from the previous year to be automatically continued with small across-the-board cuts that would multiply until Congress passed a budget.

“These other things like cutting pay or forcing us to be here, they’ve never worked in the past and I don’t think they’d work now,” said Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, who has co-sponsored the legislation authored by Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.

Risch sympathizes with those who have agitated over funding the government.

“I don’t support the size of our government or the way it’s operating today,” Risch said. “I think it should operate at a substantially smaller and much more limited capacity. Having said that, it still has to do important functions like defending this country, delivering peoples’ Social Security checks and veterans’ benefits. Those things have to be done.”

Groups that track the federal budget are skeptical that any of the the legislation would make a dent, if it ever passed.

“It’s a good rhetorical talking point, but in the end if actually funding the government isn’t rationale enough, then docking a bunch of millionaires’ salaries is hardly going to force them back to the table,” said Steve Ellis, vice president at Taxpayers for Common Sense.

“They’re like college students,” Ellis said of members of Congress. “Give them a longer deadline for the term paper and they’re still going to be up doing an all-nighter the night before to get it done.”

Anita Kumar contributed to this report.

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark

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