November 8, 2012

ALTHOUGH IT DIDN’T attract much attention, the pace of government in Washington slowed to a crawl over the past year. Important regulations were stalled, decisions were deferred and pressing issues were held in abeyance or neglected by President Obama and Congress, largely out of a desire to avoid political risk. The president set the tone by focusing in a singular fashion on his reelection campaign. Now he, lawmakers and regulators have a torrent of decisions to make, many of them postponed for too long.

By far the most important is repairing the financial health of the nation. The fiscal cliff isn’t an object of nature; it was created to force Congress to make some painful decisions, which Congress nonetheless managed to avoid. Today, the nation urgently needs an intelligent and bipartisan deal to avert the crude, automatic cuts and tax increases that loom without action. The uncertainty is a heavy albatross for a weak economy. Resolving it would be a tonic — and is the only responsible course.

In recent months, the White House bottled up or slow-walked a host of pending rules, fearful of the GOP’s battle cry of “job-killing regulations.” Many of them may be debatable, but it is time to get the machinery of government working again, and to have the debate. According to National Journal, the Environmental Protection Agency has been sitting on a dozen major regulations. These include rules to curb ozone emissions from coal plants. In 2011, the president signed the Food Safety Modernization Act, the most ambitious overhaul of the nation’s food safety system since the 1930s, which Congress approved with broad bipartisan support and industry backing. But the rules to implement it have been held up by the Office of Management and Budget for nearly a year. In another example, the health-care reform law stipulated that final rules for a sunshine provision on drug-company payments to physicians and teaching hospitals were to be issued by October 2011. They still have not been.

In national security, too, it is time to face up to some long-delayed issues. One of them is the onslaught of cyberattacks and cybertheft against the private sector. Legislation that stalled in Congress would enable the government to use sophisticated methods to help defend business. The best outcome would be a bipartisan congressional compromise and a law, but lacking that, the president may have good reason to impose some provisions by executive order.

Also, the president will soon have to decide whether to renew negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program, and if so, on what terms; how to respond to an expected attempt by the Palestinians to win statehood recognition from the U.N. General Assembly; and how to address the continuing civil war in Syria, which is threatening to spread to nearby U.S. allies and destabilize the Middle East.

As Ronald Reagan aptly put it once, it’s time to put the work shoes on.