The first month of the new federal fiscal year has come and gone with a whimper and not a bang.
Congress is hoping to make progress on a package of spending bills, but there’s talk of continuing resolutions and of a government shutdown come Nov. 21.
For thousands of federal employees, contractors, and contracts, we’re in a different world now. We’re in the Wild West of fiscal 2020, which began Oct. 1.
Congress has failed to do its job again, and we don’t have a budget for the new fiscal year. That used to be a source of shame for Congress, but it has happened so often now that when Oct. 1 rolls around each year, no one feels all that badly anymore about their failure.
“You had one job!” the popular meme chiding Congress goes, and in fact, there’s a pretty strong case to be made for the notion that it has just one real job.
Congress is uniquely and constitutionally empowered to decide how to spend all the money that it collects from the American people. It’s not the president’s job, even though every year he submits suggestions. Yet, every year Congress can’t seem to do that one job in a timely fashion.
The consequences of that delay are much worse for all of us than we might realize.
Thousands of future contracts that are funded in next year’s budget, but not in this year’s budget, have to wait in a state of limbo. The companies that already have won those contracts—usually through a competitive and time-sensitive selection process—have to hold their teams together, usually at their own expense, if they want to execute the federal contracts.
To tide us over, Congress passed a continuing resolution, letting last year’s budget continue, in zombielike fashion, into this year. But no one can get started on new things. That’s a nightmare for people trying to spend federal dollars efficiently.
Why does Congress fail to do its budgeting job every year? It’s partly because there’s almost no consequence to lawmakers if they don’t. Most of us don’t have jobs like that. If we fail to do our jobs, we get fired—but not Congress. Failing to pass the budget carries with it almost no consequences.
Perhaps it’s time for that to change. Perhaps it’s time for Congress to do its job or face unpleasant consequences. And perhaps we can structure that in such a way that it would attract the type of competent, dedicated people we’d like to make up our Congress, and drum out the types who can’t work together and get things done.
Let us propose a modest and straightforward consequence: Congress, pass a budget and get it signed by the president before Oct. 1 of each year, or else congressional pay and benefits get moved to the bottom of the list of federal spending priorities.
That would mean that if the budget is deemed to be in deficit, then members of Congress don’t get paid the next year. Not just no salary, either. They would get no funds for offices, no money for staff, no pension, no health care. Not even those nice parking spaces around the Capitol.
Congress, pass a balanced budget before Oct. 1, or you’ll be riding Metro to the Capitol South and Union Station stops and hoofing the rest of the way, like the rest of us. You’ll be sitting on the Capitol steps with your laptop open doing your work all alone.
The rest of us deal with the consequences of our actions and inactions. Isn’t it high time that Congress should get that same wonderful experience?
It’s wishful thinking, of course, but we need a constitutional “Do Your Job” amendment. Everyone in the country—right or left, conservative or liberal, rich or poor—would be in favor of that.
Except maybe for a certain 535 of us.