WASHINGTON, D.C. — Can you make a wealthy person do something by temporarily withholding a relatively tiny part of his or her income?
America is about to find out, after the Senate approved a bill on a 64-34 vote Thursday to suspend the nation’s debt limit until mid-May, enabling the federal government to continue to borrow money to pay its bills.
In exchange for the ability to raise the debt ceiling without a fight over spending cuts, the House of Representatives-authored bill contains a provision that requires the Democratic-controlled Senate to pass a budget, something it hasn’t done in four years, or see members’ pay withheld in escrow. The House passed its bill last week. President Barack Obama is expected to sign the measure into law.
While having their paychecks in financial purgatory might strike fear into the wallets of most Americans, questions abound as to whether the “No Budget, No Pay Act” will spur senators — who had an average wealth of $13.9 million in 2011, the last year analyzed by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics — to quake in their shoes. Most members of the Senate and House earn $174,000 a year.
“If it’s the impetus for people to do the right thing, fine, but in reality I don’t think it will scare people into doing a budget,” said Robert Bixby, the executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan budget-watchdog group. “If they really wanted to put their pay on the line, they should reject their pay until they all agree to a final budget resolution.”
While House Republicans crowed last week that the Democratic-led Senate didn’t begin talking about writing a budget this year until the lower chamber passed “No Budget, No Pay,” several senators scoffed at the idea that the threat of delaying their pay would force them into action.
“We Democrats want to raise the debt ceiling. We don’t need any incentive,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. “Now if they needed to gimmick over there (the House) to pass it, that’s their prerogative, but it doesn’t affect us.”
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., agreed, saying the pressure on senators’ purse strings is a symbolic gesture largely for public consumption.
“I think it’s a perception add-on,” Roberts said. “There’s a lot of feeling that if you put something like that in there, that it will have some effect.”
But Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said the perception was a reality as far as his checkbook was concerned and those of other senators who “need a paycheck to live.” Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., for example, ranked 98th among the senators in 2011, with a net worth of zero, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., was 99th among senators in the study, with a net worth of minus $372,986 to $281,998.
“Would it matter to Lindsey Graham at home? Hell, yeah, it would matter,” said Graham who ranked 65th in the 2011 financial analysis, with a net worth of $505,987 to $1,303,789. “Some people are independently wealthy. … I’ve got bills to pay.”
William Galston, a senior fellow at Washington’s Brookings Institution research center and a co-founder of No Labels, a bipartisan group that seeks ways to untangle partisan gridlock, thinks that making lawmakers feel pinches in their purses for poor performance has legs, because several of them may be asset-rich but cash-poor.
“There’s a difference between wealth and liquid assets,” he said. “Not many people, even lawmakers with heavy balance sheets, can afford to miss a paycheck.”
Plus, the Senate might be a little less wealthy as leaders of the millionaires club depart or already have left.
Democrat John Kerry of Massachusetts, who was the richest senator, with an estimated average net worth of $235,976,804, is leaving to become Obama’s secretary of state. Democrat Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, who was the third-richest senator, with an estimated average net worth of $171,257,012, retired. Kohl owned the top asset listed by lawmakers: the National Basketball Association’s Milwaukee Bucks, valued at $268 million. “And Rockefeller is retiring, too,” Galston said, referring to wealthy West Virginia Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who has an average net worth of $102,706,012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.