We would really like to think of Congress as the best of us. As the upholders of law and order, we expect them to meet high standards. We also expect them to be treated no more favorably than the voters who sent them to Washington. Last week, our representatives managed to fail us on both accounts.
For the second time in less than five years, the federal government was shut down for three days, the result of the same old political gridlock. During these shutdowns, federal employees aren’t able to work, national parks are closed and some members of the military aren’t paid.
But the government shutdowns never actually shut down the paychecks received by the members of the House of Representatives and Senate.
It is one of the most frustrating bugs in our system. The 27th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution — which was first introduced in the early days of the republic but wasn’t ratified until 1992 — restricts any Congress from changing its own pay. While this provision prevents Congress from being able to raise their own salaries, it also means that the only government workers who still get paid are the ones who cause shutdowns in the first place.
If lawmakers really struggle to grasp why so many Americans feel that politicians believe they are above the law, look no further than the recent shutdown stalemate on Capitol Hill. How can people believe their representatives don’t get special treatment if they don’t appear to follow the basic social norms that we abide by every day?
If we don’t agree with our co-workers, we don’t get to hold our business hostage. If we fail a task as a team effort, we don’t get to play the blame game and point fingers at everyone but ourselves. And if we don’t do our job, we don’t get paid.
It’s about time Republican and Democratic members of Congress start following the same protocols. Maybe then they’ll think twice about shutting down the government at the expense of thousands of federal workers and the well-being of millions of citizens.
Congress received enormous backlash during the two-week shutdown in 2013 when the topic of paychecks became part of the conversation. When Nebraska Republican Rep. Lee Terry was asked if he would still be collecting his paycheck during the shutdown, he replied, “Dang straight. I’ve got a nice house and a kid in college, and I’ll tell you we cannot handle it. Giving our paycheck away when you still worked and earned it? That’s just not going to fly.”
Terry received little sympathy from people on that score.
Fortunately, there are lawmakers who feel differently — or at least are good at looking like they feel differently. Since the 2013 shutdown, several lawmakers from both political parties have proposed legislation that would prevent members of Congress from receiving pay during government shutdowns.
Hours before last week’s shutdown began, 10 Democratic senators introduced a bill that would do just that. Central New York’s own Rep. Claudia Tenney, the Republican representing the Mohawk Valley, also introduced a companion bill in the House.
That maneuver is also good political theatrics. Since congressional paychecks are protected by a constitutional amendment, it would take more than a single bill to alter that. And there are many members of Congress who probably aren’t interested in docking their own pay, even if it is good optics.
Since they can’t ban shutdown paychecks, many have resorted to announcing that they will donate them to good causes. Tenney said she was donating her shutdown first-day payment to the CNY Veterans Outreach Center and day two’s paycheck to the UHS New Horizons, a drug treatment center in Binghamton. Rep. John Katko, of New York’s 24th Congressional District, said his pay would be going to Vera House and PEACE, Inc.’s Head Start program.
Yet even that process can be abused. Lawmakers must first receive that individual paycheck, then donate it themselves. According to The Washington Times, several politicians who made the pledge to return their pay during the 2013 shutdown still received it, just at a later date.
As another government shutdown looms on Feb. 8 when the temporary spending plan expires, we might very well be repeating the conversation of shutdown payroll. But while Congress is immune from the no-work no-pay benchmark, they are not immune from this prospect: If you don’t do good work, you get fired.
Since this is an election year, maybe it’s time we introduce some of our representatives to that social norm. Maybe then they’ll get the message.
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