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 today.
Take Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., 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 downturn, based on their net worth. The median net worth of U.S. households is $66,740, while for Congress' 535 members, 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, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III, is worth between $3.6 million and $11.7 million, according to the center's tallies. The other Senate co-sponsor, Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., is worth less but is still doing just fine, with a net worth of between $2.8 million and $3.4 million.
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 getting their paychecks.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., 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 senator, 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 lawmakers cannot vary their own compensation in a single Congress.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said he had other issues with the plan, including that he felt that 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, this is a good idea."