Charles Arlinghaus: Ayotte aims to get Congress to do its job
The music for the Washington fiscal cliff debate ought to be that written by Sergei Prokofiev for his "Tale of the Buffoon who Outwits Seven Other Buffoons." It is kind of hard to believe he hadn't heard of the fiscal cliff when he wrote it.
It is easy to mock what passes for debate in Washington because we know it will recur again and again for months to come. The problem in short is that success is not possible because politicians in Washington have been released from the rules most politicians have to follow. What results is what would happen if gravity were similarly repealed: a bunch of confused people floating about with no defined purpose.
Gravity in this case is some sort of incentive or requirement that something be accomplished. In the case of almost all local and state governments, gravity is represented by the requirement that the budget be balanced. Various factions can disagree, but in the end a deal of some sort must happen because the budget has to be balanced.
The Washington problem is worse. The fiscal cliff crisis of last week (and we have another one coming in two months) wasn't a hard and fast thing. It wasn't as if the deal had to be reached by a date certain. Doing nothing was a perfectly legal option; the deadline was arbitrary and could have been postponed indefinitely.
Even were they to shock those of us on the human being side of the Washington-reality divide and pass a budget (they haven't in years), there are few legal requirements on that budget. Notably, it does not have to be balanced, so it isn't.
I'd applaud state legislators here for providing a good contrast by balancing their budget, but the real contrast is that they have no other choice. They have to pass a balanced budget by June 30, and they may not spend more than they raise. They can't disagree about how much deficit reduction is good or bad; by law they have to reduce it to zero.
In Washington, one possible incentive to balance the budget would be a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Washington could do what it wanted within certain guidelines, but the chief guideline would be that spending and revenue must match.
Our own U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte's reaction to the budget debate contains the seed that might bring responsibility to her juvenile colleagues. In the midst of the debate over record deficits, the President nonetheless signed an executive order granting federal employees and members of Congress a pay increase. Sen. Ayotte quite sensibly saw this as ridiculous and introduced a bill to rescind the pay hike. The final deal included her sensible advice.
Congress can't be expected to balance the budget if members continue to get raises despite their dereliction of duty. Ayotte is a sponsor of the No Budget, No Pay bill, which would keep Congress from being paid if it doesn't pass an actual budget.
For some congressmen, actually denying them their whole paycheck should their colleagues do something they routinely do might seem too risky. Getting a majority of them to pass a rule that makes their lives more difficult is a tall order, but I think a variation might be possible and still provide an incentive.
Congressmen respond to their own pocketbooks. A modest step that might attract more supporters would be one that provided a financial penalty that is less severe than taking away all of their pay. We should reduce their salary by 5 percent each year that the budget is not balanced. For the first few years of implementation, we can set gradually reducing targets to get to zero in five or six years. Does anyone doubt that their incentives would change?
Many incentive systems, such as sequestration, create automatic penalties for other people when Congress doesn't get its job done. That incentive is not quite right. They might take things a bit more seriously if we penalize them for their own failures.
Charles M. Arlinghaus is president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank in Concord.