WASHINGTON -- In principle, it sounds self-sacrificing, even noble: Congress swears off collecting its paychecks until it passes a budget.
But behind the "no budget, no pay" proposal, which the House passed when it voted to temporarily extend the debt limit last week, is also a basic reality: many of those who support the concept are so wealthy that their Congressional paychecks are little more than a rounding error. The Senate may pass the measure as early as Wednesday.
Take Representative Dave Camp, the Michigan Republican who led the charge on the bill in the House. He has a net worth between $3.8 million and $9.7 million, according to an analysis of his most recent financial disclosure by the Center for Responsive Politics.
That is not exactly a fortune befitting a Rockefeller or a Kennedy, but it is more than enough to cushion any discomfort that he might feel from missing a few paydays. Many of the other lawmakers who have championed "no budget, no pay," both Republicans and Democrats, are similarly wealthy.
Congress, for all its democratic trappings, has long been richer than a typical collection of 535 Americans. But the gap between the financial standing of members and of the population as a whole appears to have grown in recent decades, according to analysts who track financial disclosure forms.
As many ordinary Americans have struggled to get by in recent years, members of Congress were largely insulated from the economic downturn, based on their net worth. The median net worth of American households is $66,740, while for the 535 members of Congress it is about $966,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The Democratic co-sponsor of the "no budget, no pay" bill in the Senate, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, is worth between $3.6 million and $11.7 million, according to the center's tallies. The other Senate co-sponsor, Dean Heller, Republican of Nevada, is worth less but is still doing just fine, with a net worth of between $2.8 million and $3.4 million.
When the debt limit extension passed the House last week, the chamber's three wealthiest members voted yes: Michael McCaul, Republican of Texas (net worth estimated at $500 million); Darrell Issa, Republican of California ($480 million); and Jared Polis, Democrat of Colorado ($215 million).
Representative Scott Rigell, a Virginia Republican, also pushed for the provision. His estimated net worth is as high as $52 million, and he returns 15 percent of his Congressional paycheck each year.
"One thing I've never called for is an outright reduction in salary, because I do appreciate that members come from different walks of life," Mr. Rigell said. But as imperfect a solution as withholding pay might be, he said the concept was sound. "I am convinced that is a big enough lever to influence the institution, and it needs it."
Since 1974, Congress has been mandated to pass a nonbinding annual budget. But the Senate has failed to pass a budget in the past three years, in part because Democratic leaders did not want to subject embattled members to tough spending votes.
As moneyed as Congress is these days, there are members who would feel the pinch if they stopped receiving their paychecks. Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, has a reported net worth no higher than $300,000, making him one of the few nonmillionaires to support the bill. That also makes him the fifth-poorest member of the Senate, according to the figures from the Center for Responsive Politics.
In the House, a few members have an estimated net worth that is a negative figure, meaning their financial liabilities are greater than their assets.
Disagreements about the provision's effectiveness aside, some have raised questions about whether it is constitutional.
The debt limit extension bill says that if either house of Congress fails to approve a budget resolution for the next fiscal year by April 15, members' paychecks are to be held in an escrow account until a measure passes -- or, if that never happens, until the end of the 113th Congress in early 2015.
Opponents have argued that this may run afoul of the 27th Amendment, which says that lawmakers cannot vary their own compensation in a single Congress.
"It's clearly unconstitutional, and we shouldn't do unconstitutional things," said Representative Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, who noted almost as a point of pride that he was one of the House's poorest members.
But Mr. Nadler said he had other issues with the plan as well, including that he felt it was coercive and could force members to vote for legislation they thought was flawed.
And he said he was concerned about the precedent it would set. "If you want only millionaires to be in Congress," he said, "this is a good idea."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.