CONGRESS DID NOT, in the end, go over the “fiscal cliff,” which is a far cry, of course, from saying that it acted on the massive backlog of policy issues, large and small. Lawmakers avoided the “sequester” — $110 billion in across-the-board spending cuts, half to defense, half to other programs — but only by postponing them for two months. They renewed a number of tax breaks for business but many of them for only a year. They spared doctors a 27 percent cut in Medicare reimbursement rates; but this “doc fix,” as with the many previous ones, lasts 12 months.
And yes, the U.S. government still has authority to borrow money even though it formally hit the $16.4 trillion debt limit, but only because the Treasury Department can scrounge money through “extraordinary measures” until the end of February. Meanwhile, the government’s authority to spend money runs out March 27, unless Congress passes another short-term bill to avoid a shutdown of federal agencies, as it did back in September.
So it goes with our improvised federal government, which seems less and less like a mighty ship of state and more and more like a leaky, patched-together political rowboat. The sequester, debt-ceiling and spending-authority issues will be revisited and refought, furiously, in the first months of the new Congress that began Thursday. But that is only the beginning: Several major federal programs are long overdue for revision and operate only because of short-term extensions of previous enactments.
The latest example is the farm bill. The last iteration of it expired Sept. 30, and a deeply divided Congress could not renew the measure in time to avoid a steep spike in dairy prices on New Year’s Day. Instead, the 2008 version has been extended for nine months. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, commonly known as welfare, expired in 2010; it has kept going through a series of temporary extensions, the latest of which expires in March.
The landmark No Child Left Behind Act was also not reauthorized on schedule in 2011, so the Obama administration has been making policy in that area by granting states waivers from some of the law’s student-performance targets in return for other policy reforms. Congress did manage to pass a new surface transportation act in the middle of 2012, to replace the one that expired in 2009. But with a duration of just 27 months, instead of the usual five years, it’s really more of a super-size extension than a true reauthorization.
To be sure, no farm bill might be better than a bad one, and most of them have been bad — stuffed with inefficient and unnecessary production subsidies. But the farm bill also includes food-stamp money, which is necessary. And for the most part, the bills still trapped in congressional limbo address genuine national issues. At this point, though, no one can be certain just how the federal government will address them, and for how long.
You can cite any number of reasons for the deadlock — increasing partisanship and polarization; trench warfare among special-interest groups; even, yes, legitimate differences about policy. But on one point there should be no dispute: A great nation cannot flourish under provisional government.