By Representative Jim Cooper
I've been trying to get Congress to behave better, and that's a frustrating job. There are so many areas for improvement that it's hard to know where to start. So I thought I'd start simple, real simple.
Congress should pay its bills on time. That principle should be obvious but, at least on Capitol Hill, very few people believe it. Many colleagues in Congress think that deadlines don't apply to them. They act like they are above the law, because they write the laws.
In fairness to my colleagues, their disdain for deadlines used to be harmless. After all, Congress has not passed a budget and all its 12 appropriations bills on time since 1995. Key agencies have often been funded month-by-month, or week-by-week. Start/stop government is no way to run a superpower, yet hardly anyone noticed until the delays threatened total government shutdown.
Finally, America's patience snapped. Congressional delays got so bad last summer that America neared default for the first time in our history.
After months of watching partisan wrangling, bond markets got tired of waiting for Congress to pay its bills. Some investors even worried that the national debt was so large that Congress couldn't pay its bills. Delay breeds larger fears. We lost our historic AAA credit rating.
Despite congressional misbehavior, we got a lucky break. Instead of being punished, interest rates on Treasury bonds improved. In a normal market, worse risks pay higher rates. But America's role as safe haven of the world saved us. We were bad but other nations were worse. Investors still wanted to loan us money.
Will we be so lucky next time? No one knows, but most experts doubt it. We certainly don't have room for error like we used to. We're running out of excuses for being late and reckless. Next time, interest rates could spike.
That's why I have authored legislation to force Congress to start meeting its key financial deadlines. Congress would be required to pass a budget and all appropriations bills by Oct. 1 of each year, or not get paid. This would start in 2013, the first year that such a law could be constitutional.
Will this law work any better than existing ones? How do you keep lawmakers from becoming lawbreakers? The key is to align congressional interests with the public's interest.
Here's a dirty congressional secret. Some colleagues benefit from today's delays. Mundane tasks like bill-paying suddenly become exciting, at the risk of damaging our national credit. Congressmen have the chance to be heroes by championing interests or coping with crisis, even when the crisis is self-created. Publicity is gold in politics.
My bill not only drains the excitement from delay, it also enlists the most powerful lobbyists to persuade Congress to do the right thing. The spouse of every congressman will suddenly start demanding that they get the job done on time once they know that their paychecks are threatened. When these interests are aligned, Congress will get in line. T
hreatening congressional pay is a new approach to disciplining Congress. Critics call it a gimmick. I think it's because they are afraid it will work. I'm always interested in a better solution, but America is running out of time and patience. Congress simply cannot shirk its duties any more.
We already have 40 cosponsors on my bill, H.R. 3643, "No Budget, No Pay," including some members of the Tennessee delegation, but we need more. Please contact members outside Tennessee to get them to cosponsor.
Deadlines work. Congress should, too.