On January 23, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill suspending the government's debt ceiling until May 18. Ho-hum, right? But the bill would also withhold lawmakers' paychecks unless they get together, agree on taxes and spending, and pass an actual federal budget by April 15, something they have failed to do since 1997.
The bill, H.R. 325, along with suspending the debt ceiling, gives each chamber of Congress until April 15 to pass a budget resolution for fiscal year 2014 as part of the annual federal budget process required under the Congressional Budget Act of 1974.
Should either the House, Senate or both fail to pass a budget resolution by the deadline, the paychecks of the members of that chamber would be withheld until a budget plan is passed.
But don't worry, Congress will not go hungry. The funds withheld from the members would be placed in an escrow account, so they may eventually get it. Lawmakers would be allowed to collect their pay if and when an annual budget is finally passed.
Since 1997, Congress has failed to pass the separate spending or "appropriations bills" required by the annual federal budget process. Instead lawmakers have made do with massive hurriedly written, seldom read, pork-filled "Consolidated Appropriations Acts" and a series of "Continuing Resolutions," typically passed just hours before a government shutdown. All very dramatic, and wasteful.
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The debt ceiling part of the bill, rather than again raising the government's borrowing limit, simply allows it to continue borrowing temporarily without substantial reductions in spending.
Under the bill, which passed the House in a 285 - 144 vote, the U.S. Treasury Department would simply ignore, rather than raise, the current $16.4 trillion government borrowing limit, adding to the debt every day through May 18. After May 18, the debt limit would increase automatically.
In an analysis released on January 16, the Bipartisan Policy Center projected that by May 18, the government would incur an additional $450 billion in debt, but would not begin to default on the debt until late July.
If you find running at tab on a $16.4 trillion in debt -- while not even having a budget -- sort of discomforting, consider that on January 17, the Government Accountability Office reported that it was unable to render is congressionally required opinion on the government's latest financial reports, because of their "widespread material internal control weaknesses, significant uncertainties, and other limitations."