The House GOP leadership introduced its 3-month debt limit increase yesterday and plans to vote on it tomorrow. As a sweetener to paper over their turnaround on the debt limit, the GOP attached a “no budget no pay” provision to H.R. 325 that could change the payment of Congressional salaries. While this looks like unconstitutional grandstanding, there is a chance that — intentionally or not — the “no budget no pay” part of the statute could function as a poison pill clause. If so, I am concerned that any challenge to the unconstitutional part could have the effect of restoring the debt ceiling while seeming to put the blame on the courts rather than Congress.
Explaining what I’m worried about is slightly convoluted, involving first the validity of a Constitutional Amendment with a strange ratification history and second the arcane rules about “severability” — what courts should do when they find part of a statue unconstitutional — so bear with me.
As you may know, the House GOP’s fig leaf for its temporary parole of the hostage it had taken (the international economy) was to say that unless the Congress passes a budget this year — instead of the various continuing resolutions and such under which we’ve operated for some time — federal legislators would not get their salaries.
This provision is (almost certainly) blatantly unconstitutional. The US Constitution provides, in the 27th Amendment (proposed 1789, ratified 1992(!)),
No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.
The reason for the “(almost certainly)” is that the 27th Amendment has an unusual history. The provision was one of the two amendments in the original bill of rights that did not get approved by a sufficient number of states. It laid largely dormant for almost two centuries until being revived due to a campaign started by U. Texas undergraduate. (He got a C on the paper proposing the campaign, by the way.)
No court has ruled on the validity of the 27th Amendment, but in light of Coleman v. Miller, 307 U.S. 433 (1939) and the subsequent acceptance of the 27th Amendment by Congress, I think it’s a very good bet that just about every judge in the land would say it was valid.
If so, we turn to figuring out whether H.R.325 violates the 27th Amendment. The structure of the bill “To ensure the complete and timely payment of the obligations of the United States Government until May 19, 2013, and for other purposes” is simple: Two sections. Section One is short, and says the debt ceiling “shall not apply for the period beginning on the date of the enactment of this Act and ending on May 18, 2013.” Section Two is much longer and purports to put congressional salaries in escrow until the end of the session if no budget is passed. I’ve put the full text of it at the end of this post. The key parts that relate to salaries are these:
[2(a)](1) IN GENERAL- If by April 15, 2013, a House of Congress has not agreed to a concurrent resolution on the budget for fiscal year 2014 pursuant to section 301 of the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, during the period described in paragraph (2) the payroll administrator of that House of Congress shall deposit in an escrow account all payments otherwise required to be made during such period for the compensation of Members of Congress who serve in that House of Congress, and shall release such payments to such Members only upon the expiration of such period.
(4) RELEASE OF AMOUNTS AT END OF THE CONGRESS- In order to ensure that this section is carried out in a manner that shall not vary the compensation of Senators or Representatives in violation of the twenty-seventh article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States, the payroll administrator of a House of Congress shall release for payments to Members of that House of Congress any amounts remaining in any escrow account under this section on the last day of the One Hundred Thirteenth Congress.
Does this comply with the 27th Amendment? I don’t think this is even a close question: in my view the escrow provision clearly does not. The prohibition on “varying the compensation” seems pretty clear to me: it means no changes in amount, and no changes in time of payment because there is a time value to money. Anyone who gets a salary would think it a very material change in the terms if the money were escrowed for more than a year and a half instead of being made available to pay the mortgage.
You might, therefore, be forgiven for dismissing the House GOP insistence on this provision as mere grandstanding — one quick lawsuit by a member of Congress wanting his pay, and the pay limit is toast.
But here, finally, is where I have a somewhat scary thought: Is it possible that the pay provision is non-severable from the debt ceiling increase? Could it be the case that if a court strikes down the pay provision — as I think it must do if asked — will the court also be forced to nullify the debt ceiling increase provision of the bill? Is this pay provision not just grandstanding but in fact, and perhaps even intent, a piece of Machiavellian scheming?
Answering those questions requires some background in the law relating to “severability”.
We are long past the point where one unconstitutional clause necessarily infects an entire statute. There is now a substantial body of doctrine about when a court should “sever” the unconstitutional piece and leave the rest. Much of that doctrine concerns statutes with a “severability clause”, an instruction from Congress about what to do if a dubious clause is struck down. As H.R. 325 does not have a severability clause, we can ignore all that and turn straight to the rules for statutes without severability clauses.
The Supreme Court recently addressed this very issue in Free Enterprise Fund v. Public Co. Accounting Oversight Board, 130 S.Ct. 3138, 3161-62 (2010), which involved the fate of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. I’ve excised the citations in the quote that follows:
“Generally speaking, when confronting a constitutional flaw in a statute, we try to limit the solution to the problem,” severing any “problematic portions while leaving the remainder intact.” Because “[t]he unconstitutionality of a part of an Act does not necessarily defeat or affect the validity of its remaining provisions,” the “normal rule” is “that partial, rather than facial, invalidation is the required course[.]” Putting to one side petitioners’ Appointments Clause challenges (addressed below), the existence of the Board does not violate the separation of powers, but the substantive removal restrictions imposed by §§ 7211(e)(6) and 7217(d)(3) do. Under the traditional default rule, removal is incident to the power of appointment. Concluding that the removal restrictions are invalid leaves the Board removable by the Commission at will, and leaves the President separated from Board members by only a single level of good-cause tenure. The Commission is then fully responsible for the Board’s actions, which are no less subject than the Commission’s own functions to Presidential oversight.
The Sarbanes–Oxley Act remains “ ‘fully operative as a law’ ” with these tenure restrictions excised. We therefore must sustain its remaining provisions “[u]nless it is evident that the Legislature would not have enacted those provisions … independently of that which is [invalid].” Though this inquiry can sometimes be “elusive,” the answer here seems clear: The remaining provisions are not “incapable of functioning independently,” and nothing in the statute’s text or historical context makes it “evident” that Congress, faced with the limitations imposed by the Constitution, would have preferred no Board at all to a Board whose members are removable at will.
So the issue is whether (1) HR 325 remains fully operative as a law, and (2) whether in light of the statutory and historical context “it is evident that the Legislature would not have enacted those provisions … independently of that which is [invalid].”
Even assuming HR 325 passes the first test, does it pass the second? Will it be clear at passage that the bill would have passed without the Republican face-saving section on Congressional pay?
There are powerful reasons to say no, that the two parts of the statute are tightly linked. Just consider what the GOP leadership has been saying. For example, Eric Cantor and John Boehner:
“We will authorize a three-month temporary debt limit increase to give the Senate and House time to pass a budget,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said. “Furthermore, if the Senate or House fails to pass a budget in that time, members of Congress will not be paid by the American people for failing to do their job.”
In selling the idea, House Speaker John Boehner called the Senate’s failure to pass a budget over the last four years “shameful.”
Or Darrell Issa, who originally said the no pay idea was unconstitutional, but then backpeddled, said,
“I strongly support the House Republican leadership’s proposal to link the debt ceiling increase to passage of a budget by the Senate, which has gone 1360 days without passing a blueprint for federal spending.
So Congressional leaders are selling the provisions as linked. Does this mean that the two sections of H.R. 325 are too closely linked to be severable? I think the best answer is that we don’t know yet, since the vote hasn’t happened, but it is a real possibility. The answer may turn on the final vote and the debate around it. The more that Members of Congress say the only reason they are going along is the “no budget no pay” clause, the worse it will look. If the vote is close, will a judge be able to say in good conscience that H.R. 325 would have passed without the pay provisions? I’m not sure I could say that if I were a judge. On the other hand, if the vote is very lop-sided, it could be easier to argue, and to persuade oneself, that the provisions were not key to passage, and that even some Republicans voting for it might have swallowed the debt ceiling increase without the pay sop attached.
One could of course argue that all the talk about the value of the “no budget no pay” rule is just legislative camouflage, and should not be taken too seriously. That might well be true politically. But in the face of statements by both key House leaders and perhaps many of the rank and file saying “no budget no pay” matters to their vote, asking a court to in effect hold that members of a co-ordinate branch of government were dissembling might be asking lot.