The new normal? Millions wait for Congress to act

 

McClatchy Newspapers

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:

FARM BILL

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.

DEFENSE

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.

DISASTER RELIEF

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.

Such legislation used to pass almost automatically. In recent years, conservative Republicans have demanded spending reductions elsewhere to pay for the aid.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., was sympathetic. But, he said, “it is also our responsibility during these tight budget times to make sure that the victims of this storm are getting the most of every single recovery dollar, and to ensure that disaster funds are timed and targeted in the most efficient and appropriate manner. “

JOBLESS BENEFITS

What used to be automatic – providing additional aid to the long-term unemployed – has become a struggle.

Some jobless workers can get up to 73 weeks of benefits in harder-hit states, but the maximum will be capped at six months at the end of the year unless Congress acts. The National Employment Law Project, which researches unemployment trends, estimates that 2 million people could be affected.

Many Republicans insist that any extension be paid for, while Democrats argue that the nation is in an economic emergency and aid shouldn’t be subject to such rigid rules.

They also argue that more aid is an economic stimulus. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office agrees, saying the additional demand would help the economy grow about two-tenths of a percentage point.

WHO’S TO BLAME?

Experts find that the Senate and House share responsibility for the gridlock.

“Individually, each house has been productive,” Senate Historian Donald Ritchie said. Each chamber has passed its version of solutions to major problems, but the final product stalls because the Senate and House can’t compromise on a single bill.

Most House members were elected in 2010, in an election in which the conservative tea party movement helped elect dozens of new Republicans and give the party control of the House.

Across the Capitol, though, about two-thirds of the Senate was elected in 2006 and 2008, big years for Democrats, and that party has retained its majority.

“The Senate has come together in a bipartisan way on a lot of legislation,” Ritchie said, citing this month’s 98-0 vote to pass a defense bill. “But in the House, the majority party doesn’t have to do anything that includes the minority party.”

Email: dlightman@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @lightmandavid

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