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Nation/World

December 17, 2012

The new normal? Millions wait for Congress to act

WASHINGTON — Congress is frantically trying to wrap up its 2012 session, with the fates of 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 Hurricane 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.

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