The recent failure of Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N. Dak.), Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, to persuade Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to allow a vote on the Committee’s most recent budget proposal reflects a growing problem nationwide. As Politico notes, the “Democratic-led Senate hasn’t passed a budget blueprint since April 2009,” and Reid did not want to do so now in particular because of election-year pressures.
Similarly, last year the majority-Democrat legislature of California submitted a last-minute budget that Governor Jerry Brown, also a Democrat, promptly vetoed. In the words of the state’s Controller, because many items in the budget were “miscalculated, miscounted or unfinished,” it would be sent back for reworking, and legislators would forfeit their pay until it was balanced.
Then, just last month, the Washington state legislature failed to pass a budget, when Republicans and breakaway Democrats refused to support a move to delay a $340 million payment to school districts by a day to push it into the next fiscal year, thereby protecting education funding without a general tax increase. On the other hand, the Senate Republicans and their Democratic allies want to skip a $133 million payment to two underfunded pension plans, which Chris Gregoire, the Democratic governor, likened to refusing to pay a bill.
Of all the problems with legislatures, from the U.S. Congress to state assemblies, that find it apparently impossible to pass budgets on time, perhaps the most insidious is the refusal of the guilty parties to take their oath of office seriously. If there is an imbalance between what they would like to spend and the money available to spend, or between what has been promised and what can be delivered, then their constituents expect them to make the difficult decisions and take responsibility for their actions. The day comes when it is not possible to kick the can down the road any longer.
One group that seeks to remedy this situation is No Labels, a non-partisan group attempting to reform the way Congress does business. It has advanced proposals such as requiring members of the House and Senate to remain in Washington for three weeks a month and forbidding them from taking any pledges other than their oath of office. Recently the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee took up the No Budget, No Pay Act, an initiative of the organization, which stipulates that if Congress does not fulfill its fundamental responsibility and pass a budget, its members should not get paid.
As George Voinovich, the former Republican senator and governor of Ohio, and Evan Bayh, the former Democratic senator and governor of Indiana, both members of No Labels, have noted, “[i]t has been more than 1,000 days since Congress last passed a budget on time, and well over a decade since it did so with all appropriations bills.” This is a refreshing, bipartisan response to an ongoing political disgrace.