For once, Congress’s heart is in the right place. They have this idea of making it so they don’t get paid if they don’t pass a budget. Finally, they have put the needs of the country above their own political ideals. Is this an effort to get their approval ratings above that of cervical cancer? Are they coming through on a new years resolution? Did their donors put them up to it? Who cares. Some dude at CNN calls it a no brainer. I agree.

If there’s one thing Weakonomics has taught you, it’s that if you want to get something done as a team then you have to make sure everyone is marching in the same direction. More simply, everyone’s incentives have to be aligned. This is an attempt by Congress to get their incentives in line with the nation. We want a functional government, and they haven’t been function for 3 years. Maybe if enough of them are worried about their paychecks then they’ll try to get something done.

You may be thinking Congress is too rich to care about their paycheck. But that’s simply not true. While their salaries are generous, they aren’t super high. And while the average net worth does make pretty much everyone rich, most everyone in Congress does need and use their paycheck.

So you’ll be relieved to know that our elected officials aren’t fools. Their pay will only be deferred if they fail to pass budgets. The money will sit in escrow and be released when they finally do pass the budget. The pain of missing out on a paycheck is easy enough to endure if you know the money will come eventually.

Still, you have to admire this step in the right direction. But they should go further. First, as previously stated Congress wouldn’t miss out on any pay. It’s technically against the law for this Congress to limit their pay in the current session so the escrow measure is a stop-gap. They should also pass a law that limits actually makes it so the next Congress is not paid for each pay period they fail to pass a budget. That will really get a stubborn Senator’s attention.

But money will only get you so far. Whether escrowed or returned to the people some elected officials don’t care about missing a few paychecks. If Congress really wants to prove to the populace they mean business they should hold the thing they value most hostage: reelection.

The House, and to a lesser degree the Senate, is filled with power hungry monsters in constant fear of losing their power. This is due to an election system that when functioning properly makes sure we get appropriate representation in Washington. Money is a big influencer, but the power is the greatest prize. If Congress wants to show us they’re motivated, the punishment should make it harder for an incumbent to be reelected. They should institute a handicapping system for when they can’t get the job done.

Here’s how Congress could really punish themselves:

For each month that Congress can’t pass a budget everyone loses 1% of their vote in the next election. Say Congress is 1 month late passing a budget. And you represent Nevada’s 3rd congressional district and are up for reelection. You get a 1% penalty on the vote. That means to get reelected you have to win 51% of the vote. If it’s 50/50 then the challenger wins.

Capitol Hill talks a lot about “political capital”. That’s the real currency in Washington. If someone has a lot of political capital to spend they can take the hit of a few percentage points in a reelection. But not everyone has that luxury.

I appreciate what they’re trying to do with the pay thing. It’s a good first step, but I largely see it at more symbolic than anything else. But this is like marrying someone who’s cheated on you 15 times already. Those wedding vows just aren’t going to matter much. If you really want commitment, make them cut off a finger if they can’t keep their pants on.

Image: VinothChandar

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categories: economics, government, psychology