California isn’t exactly known for its sensible budget policy. The state’s long history of requiring supermajorities in order to raise taxes has turned it’s broken budget process into an international laughing stock. Nevertheless, California’s constitution does contain one very sensible provision — under a ballot initiative which was enacted last November, if lawmakers do not pass a budget by June 15, their salaries will be permanently docked:
[I]n any year in which the budget bill is not passed by the Legislature by midnight on June 15, there shall be no appropriation from the current budget or future budget to pay any salary or reimbursement for travel or living expenses for Members of the Legislature during any regular or special session for the period from midnight on June 15 until the day that the budget bill is presented to the Governor. No salary or reimbursement for travel or living expenses forfeited pursuant to this subdivision shall be paid retroactively.
California Comptroller John Chiang announced yesterday that the legislature has not yet complied with this provision, thus its members will lose their pay in two weeks if a new budget is not enacted. And, frankly, the federal government would be much improved if it took a page out of California’s book.
Earlier this year, the federal government came within inches of an economically catastrophic shutdown because right-wing lawmakers refused to fund the government unless they could exact some concessions from President Obama. This summer, the GOP could blow up the entire U.S. economy by forcing us to default on our debt unless Obama signs economically crippling spending cuts into law. Meanwhile, there is nothing in the U.S. Constitution or anywhere else in federal law that penalizes lawmakers who fail to complete must-do tasks like funding the government or raising the debt ceiling.
California’s pay-docking provision is a good idea, but it probably doesn’t go far enough. Many modern constitutions are designed to make it next to impossible for a government to cripple itself via inaction. Canada, for example, recently had to dissolve its entire government and hold a new election because it’s previous legislature failed to pass a budget.
But, in the United States, Speaker John Boehner, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), and their follow extortionists will suffer few personal consequences if they force us into the impossible choice of either killing Medicare or defaulting on our debts. Their jobs are guaranteed for two full years, and they can always retroactively pay their own salaries in the event of a shutdown. Worse, if Tea-drunk members of Congress bring us within inches of blowing up the nation’s economy, our Constitution contains no fail-safe to prevent catastrophe.