‘No Work No Pay’ Political Theater For Swinging House Freshmen

Furloughed federal employees are suffering the loss of pay during the current government shutdown, a program that provides critical nutrition assistance to low-income women, infants and children is suspended, and recent opinion polls show Congress with a public approval rating significantly lower than Richard Nixon’s just before he resigned the presidency in disgrace, so naturally both Republicans and Democrats see this as the perfect opportunity to break out their song-and-dance routines for the public, hoping to score big political points from the stalemate over implementation of the Affordable Care Act as they head into the midterm elections. Joining House leaders center stage in this warped political theater are three members of the freshman class – a Blue Dog Democrat from Texas, a Tea Party Republican from New York, a Progressive Democrat from Minnesota – who recaptured seats for their respective parties in 2012.

Rep. Pete Gallego (TX-23), Rep. Rick Nolan (MN-8) and Rep. Chris Collins (NY-22) all defeated incumbents from the opposing party in races that attracted millions in outside spending, and all have sponsored legislation affecting pay for Members of Congress during a future government shutdown (the 27th Amendment prohibits changes in compensation from going into effect until the next Congress). Nolan capitalized on public outrage by introducing his bill just as the government was preparing to shut down on Sept. 30 and launching a media blitz in concert with progressive groups such as Courage Campaign, whose executive chairman started the ‘No Pay for Congress During The Shutdown’ MoveOn.org petition on Oct. 1. Yet only the bill introduced by Collins on Sept. 20 affects Members’ pay during the current shutdown, and Collins is the only sponsor to date who opted to have his pay voluntarily withheld until the stalemate is resolved.

The Government Shutdown Fairness Act (HR3160) introduced by Tea Party Republican Collins and the No Government No Pay Act of 2013 (HR 3224) introduced by Progressive Democrat Nolan are similar bills to withhold the pay of Members of Congress during a shutdown. The major difference is that Collins’ bill contains a special rule for the current Congress that requires Members’ salaries to be placed in escrow, the same provision contained in the No Budget No Pay Act of 2013 that was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama last February.

Blue Dog Democrat Gallego’s Shutdown Pay For Congress Act of 2013 (HR 3215) introduced on Sept. 28 suspends pay for Members of Congress during a shutdown and amends the definition of ‘non-essential’ employees to include Members of Congress. While this bill does not contain a special rule applying to the current Congress, it does exactly what the public wants: it gives Members of Congress a taste of their own medicine by treating them exactly the same way federal ‘non essential’ employees are treated during a government shutdown. Not surprisingly, this bill has been decidedly unpopular with Members of Congress.

All three bills are currently stalled in committee with no hearings scheduled.

The freshmen have taken different approaches to their pay during the current shutdown as well. Rep. Collins was among the first in Congress to request that his pay be withheld for the duration of the current shutdown; and Rep. Gallego opted to continue receiving a paycheck but was one of the first to state that he will donate his salary to ‘an organization that helps military men and women who have been injured’ and encouraged colleagues to follow suit. Rep Nolan stated only that he will donate a ‘considerable portion’ of his salary to ‘Minnesota charities.’

Collins, Gallego and Nolan correctly surmised that public anger over the government shutdown offers a rare opportunity to attract national attention and create buzz in their home districts. Collins, a Tea Partier who needs to appear more moderate in order to dodge the public backlash from the shutdown, Gallego, a Blue Dog in a true swing district and Nolan, a Progressive who recently alienated a substantial part of his base by voting for forestry and mining industry bills that gut environmental protections, all stand to benefit from latching on to an issue so extremely popular with the public. But campaign contributions rather than votes may well be the Holy Grail the three are seeking as they build war chests for the next election. Nolan in particular would benefit from a large infusion of outside cash because he refuses to spend 30 hours per week “dialing for dollars” and struggles with fundraising as a result.

National exposure is the key to securing outside contributions. Gallego and Collins have the edge in mainstream media coverage, and both Collins and Nolan have a substantial presence in non-traditional media. But Nolan has been the most successful at generating publicity and securing public support from allies coast-to-coast via social media, making good use of a ready-made action network at his disposal because of his advocacy for campaign finance reform, which includes introducing the ‘We The People‘ amendment language developed and promoted by Move to Amend. Nolan’s brilliant communications strategy of introducing his bill just as the government was shutting down and then immediately launching an aggressive public relations campaign designed to harness public outrage and position the Northeastern Minnesota congressman as the architect and leader of the ‘no work no pay’ movement paid off by attracting thousands of new fans from outside the 8th District. Nolan is now widely perceived as championing the public outcry against pay for Members of Congress during a government shutdown although it is Gallego’s bill that treats Members like other federal employees during a shutdown and Collins’ bill that actually addresses pay for Members during the current crisis. From the bill title to the sponsored Facebook meme, Nolan’s expertly crafted public relations campaign has been wildly successful in enhancing the Nolan brand with progressives and no doubt endearing him to Democratic leadership as well. It does not however, translate into passing his bill.

While Nolan’s bill enjoys a bandwagon effect in social media, Collins’ legislation is building momentum among Members. On Sept. 30, Nolan had five cosponsors, Collins had 17, Gallego had one. As of Oct. 8, support breaks along party lines with 13 Democrats lining up behind Nolan, three behind Gallego and 44 Republicans backing Collins.

Clearly, Collins and Nolan are heavily invested in generating publicity for their respective positions, but what they choose to sell may tell the real story. Collins is making hay with his voluntary request to have his pay withheld and largely relegating his bill to a secondary position, whereas Nolan is peddling his bill like free beer on the Iron Range yet barely mentions -and is rather vague about- his salary. Standing in stark contrast to the others is Gallego, who employs a straightforward and comparatively low-key approach to addressing both issues that suggests that perhaps this is one congressman whose primary motive is doing the right thing rather than shameless self-promotion. And you just have to admire a Member of Congress who is willing to have himself declared ‘non essential.’

House leaders understand that perception is reality, and both Republicans and Democrats will continue to perform their song and dance routines for as long as the public allows. Hyping ‘no work no pay’ legislation doesn’t change the fact that all three bills are languishing in committee and mired in 2014 election politics. In 2012, Collins defeated Democrat incumbent Kathy Hochul by only a narrow margin in a decidedly Republican district, and both Gallego and Nolan defeated incumbent Republicans who had unseated Democrats in the Tea Party wave of 2010. The Rothenberg Political Report currently rates NY27 as Safe Republican, TX23 as Toss-up/Tilt Democrat and MN8 as Lean Democrat. With the control of the House at stake, Republican Leadership most certainly will not allow either of the Democrat bills to advance, and even the future of the Republican bill is unclear.

But it’ll sure look great on the campaign literature back home.