A group fed up with the endless budget stalemates in Washington is angry and wants someone to pay: your local congressman and senator.
No Labels, a group led by Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution and former Virginia Rep. Tom Davis that is committed to ending government partisanship, has pushed a bill that it calls the No Budget, No Pay Act, legislation that had its first hearing Wednesday before the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
The bill would freeze Congress's pay if it fails to approve an annual budget, a task required by the Budget Control Act of 1974 that is rarely executed on time.
"I've heard so many people tell me that 'No Budget' is just a talking point. Well, it isn't to me," says Nevada Republican Sen. Dean Heller, who sponsored the bill. "Too many Congress people expect an honest day's pay even if they haven't accomplished the people's work."
The budget acts as a blueprint for how Congress will appropriate money. Without one, the legislative body depends on temporary spending measures to keep the government operating. In 2011, Congress spent $3.6 trillion without ever completing a budget.
Now, with Congress's approval rating at an all-time low, Democratic Tennessee Rep. Jim Cooper testified that No Budget, No Pay, provides the kind of incentive Congress has proven it needs to meet its most basic deadlines.
"About 90 percent of Americans disapprove of the way Congress is operating and unfortunately too many of our colleagues aren't paying attention," Cooper says. "I had a constituent ask me, 'Why do I have to pay my taxes on time if Congress doesn't pay their bills?"
The legislation is one of 12 ideas proposed by No Labels, a group committed to ending bitter partisanship in government, but it's the only one that requires a new law. Along with No Budget, No Pay, No Labels proposes that Congress should vote on judicial positions within 90 days of the president's appointment, hold monthly bipartisan gatherings, restrict members from signing partisan pledges, and reduce the number of filibusters.
Galston, co-founder of No Labels. says its polling reveals that Americans overwhelming support many of the group's solutions to fix Congress, with 88 percent of Americans approving No Budget, No Pay Act.
"It's almost a twofer for voters. You get a budget on time and you get to take a shot at Congress," Davis testified.
But. while most voters are wild about the proposal, congressional members are leery.
Maine Sen. Susan Collins, the Republican ranking member of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, says she understands the public's desire to hold Congress's "feet to the fire," but is unconvinced No Budget, No Pay, will lead to results.
"Our colleagues Senator Heller and Congressman Cooper are presenting this intriguing option," Collins says. "Of course, the power to negotiate a budget through committee and bring it up for a vote on the Senate floor is not equally shared by all members, no matter how forcefully those of us not in the leadership may advocate for a budget."
So far, No Budget, No Pay has attracted six Senate co-sponsors and 34 House co-sponsors, but many members still need more convincing.
"This is the most popular of the No Labels proposals. You will not be surprised to hear that it is the least popular of the 12 proposals among members of Congress," says Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut.
Lieberman's decision to even hold the hearing led to controversy on the Hill.
"He took a lot of heat from leadership," says Heller. "They don't want this kind of message out there. They don't want this kind of message of sanity. ... It doesn't play into their agenda going into this election cycle, and I am saying Republicans and Democrats alike. This is a bipartisan message."
With only eight months until the 2012 election, No Labels is hoping No Budget, No Pay, will pass this year in time for the 113th Congress, but no hearing is scheduled for the House version of the bill.
Corrected 3/26/2012: A previous version of this story incorrectly attributed a statement about the motivation of No Budget, No Pay. Former Rep. Thomas Davis made the statement.