If the Senate can hold out until May 18, the Democratic-controlled body will have gone four years without passing a budget.
This is a big deal to House Democrats, who regularly pass a budget even though it goes nowhere. When not much else is going on, the House Republicans go into high dudgeon — dudgeon being their default mode — and berate the senators for shameful dereliction of duty.
If anybody — say, the general public — noticed, it might cause a great hue and cry among the good-government types, but the fact is, it goes largely unnoticed, even, one suspects, by many senators.
The House Republican leadership feels that by voting this week to put off a potential default by the U.S. government for four months, it deserves at least a little something — say, a budget from the Senate, preferably one that they can tear apart and ridicule.
The new chair of the Senate Finance Committee, Patty Murray, promises that she'll "try" to have a budget passed by the May deadline, even though the senators are badly out of practice at this sort of thing.
The House thought this assurance a little weak and that the Senate needed bucking up on the budget, so this week it added an amendment that the senators will not get paid unless and until they pass a budget.
The senators are paid $174,000 annually. Since this represents a nice chunk of change for most of us, the 98 percent who aren't hedge-fund managers, losing that amount of money could hurt. But don't forget that this is Congress we're dealing with.
According to the newspaper Roll Call, over half the senators are millionaires, and others are just a few dollars short of that mark, and could get by quite nicely without their senatorial pay.
Unfortunately, as so often happens with Congress, the Constitution appears to have thwarted the House plans. The 27th Amendment, passed in 1992, another great year for political mischief, says, "No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until the election of Representatives shall have intervened."
The Republicans are so unpopular with the American public that the Democrats would probably be willing to give up that $174,000 to see a special House election held. But since one poll shows that the idea of a communist takeover is more popular with the public than the Republicans, it might be best not to take a chance.
The Republicans who dreamed up the no-budget, no-pay scheme like to assume the rough-hewn-workingman persona when explaining it: "When I was splitting rails (or some such appealingly masculine occupation), if I didn't work I didn't get paid."
This sounds like the tough, harsh medicine the Senate needs to act. (Embarrass the Senate? What planet have they been living on?)
Besides, there's that pesky 27th Amendment. The Republicans talking about docking senators' pay for nonperformance generally skip over the fine print in explaining how this no-pay-for-no-work scheme will turn out in the end.
What happens is that the pay of the nonperforming senators goes into an escrow account. If the senators don't pass a budget — don't even show up for work, for that matter (they barely do, anyway, according to the congressional calendar) — they get all that money back at the end of the current Congress.
Not to be too terribly cynical, but even if the senators don't pass a budget this year or next, they'll still probably demand a hefty interest rate on their escrowed pay.
Reach Dale McFeatters at firstname.lastname@example.org