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House passes 'no budget, no pay' bill, but is it unconstitutional?

The legislation calls off the debt ceiling fight, for now. 'no budget, no pay' also requires both chambers of Congress to pass a budget resolution by April 15, or forgo their salaries until they do. But the 27th Amendment may stand in the way.

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The House on Wednesday passed its “no budget, no pay” bill, which suspends the debt ceiling for three months and calls upon both chambers of Congress to pass a budget resolution for fiscal year 2014 by April 15. Under terms of the legislation, if lawmakers miss that deadline their salaries are withheld. That’s where the “no pay” part of the thing kicks in.

Sounds like a logical way to pressure members of Congress, doesn’t it? If you don’t produce in the private sector, you can lose both pay and your job, after all. By law, Congress is supposed to pass an annual budget resolution. But the Senate, for its part, hasn’t done so in any of the past three years.

“With the passage of this bill today it’s pretty clear that we’re sending a message to the Democrat-controlled Senate: it’s time to do your job,” said House Speaker John Boehner after the legislation’s passage.

But there is one minor problem here: It is quite possible that the “no pay” part of the bill is unconstitutional.

Why is that? Because of the 27th Amendment to the Constitution, that’s why. (Submitted to the states in 1789, this amendment was not ratified until 1992, which is an interesting story unto itself.)

Congressional pay is the 27th’s subject. Among other things, it says, “No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of the Representatives shall have intervened.”

The main point of that wording is to keep lawmakers from voting themselves a fat pay raise and pocketing the cash ASAP. If they did that, they would at least have to face the voters once prior to buying those Bahamian condos. So it’s a check on congressional largesse.

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