WASHINGTON -- Congress is frantically trying to wrap up its 2012 session, with the fates of help for storm victims, farmers, the military, jobless workers and others highly uncertain.
The current Congress will go out of business at noon Jan. 3. The Senate plans to debate aid to victims of superstorm Sandy starting Monday, and there’s hope that defense-policy legislation will get final approval before the end of this month. Prospects for a farm bill and aid for the long-term unemployed are more dismal.
Such routine matters traditionally aren’t the stuff of last-minute deliberations. But this latest bout of dysfunction is typical of this two-year Congress, one that was unusually polarized from the start. The chances of getting much done in the post-election lame-duck session have been compounded by the specter of the “fiscal cliff,” the tax increases and spending cuts that are set to kick in early in January if no alternatives are adopted.
“No question this has been the least productive Congress in contemporary history,” said Thomas Mann, a congressional expert at Washington’s Brookings Institution. The problem isn’t just ideological polarization, he said, but also congressional leaders using votes and debate to advance partisan political aims as rarely before.
As a result of this gridlock, the scorecard looks like this as the 112th Congress’ final minutes tick off the clock:
The law that governs payments to farmers and sustains many other agriculture-related programs expired in September, and the two chambers are stuck in negotiations about how to proceed.
In the meantime, revisions to key programs that provide protection from droughts and other emergencies are at risk, a particularly sensitive subject in a year that’s seen the worst North American drought in a generation.
One of the major disputes involves reductions in spending on food stamps, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Both parties want to cut back the program, but Democrats have proposed cutting far less than Republicans have.
Farmers’ and ranchers’ groups are confident that Congress will act on the farm bill eventually, perhaps next year. In the meantime, they decry the uncertainty, which makes it tough to plan.
Both houses of Congress have passed versions of legislation spelling out changes in defense policy, but nothing is final until negotiators and then both chambers agree on a single bill. An agreement could come this week.
The Senate needed about six months to write its measure, and it voted earlier this month to authorize $631.4 billion for defense, about $4 billion less than the House of Representatives.
One major disagreement involves Iran. The Senate takes a tougher line, listing action that can be taken against Iran. The House bill is more general, urging “all necessary measures” should Iran issue a nuclear threat against the U.S. or its allies.
The White House is seeking $60.4 billion to help victims of October’s Hurricane Sandy. Though Senate debate will proceed this week, the timing of any final action remains uncertain.
The measure has powerful champions in both parties, notably Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, the Senate’s third-ranking Democrat, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican. Christie joined New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, in a joint statement praising the initiative.