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What's not getting done in Washington

The plaza on the east side of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

Kai Ryssdal: We are, as of today, about three quarters of the way throuigh the working life of the 112th Congress. Thing is, there hasn't been all that much actual working going on in Washington. If you measure the legislative branch by the amount of legislating it's done -- 119 bills have been passed and sent to the president so far. That's less than half the recent average.

And with the president and most members of Congress already in campaign mode, well... Marketplace's John Dimsdale has the story.


John Dimsdale: Washington's pundits make it sound like a whole lot of cans have been kicked down the road past Election Day. The list of things not getting done ranges from health care and tax reform to student loan interest rates and reducing the deficit. Looming at the end of the year are the expiration of the Bush tax cuts and the Obama payroll tax breaks. The Alternative Minimum Tax kicks in with a vengeance. Then there's a trillion dollars worth of across-the-board spending cuts as a result of the failure of the super committee.

Resolving all this promises to be one bumpy ride, according to former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson. He's been at the center of efforts to deal with the nation's debts as co-chairman of the Simpson Bowles Commission.

Alan Simpson: From Election Day, November 6th, to December 31st you want to keep your microphone hot. It's going to be chaos in America because there's going to be $5-7 trillion bucks worth of stuff floating around in there. At that point, they'll come up with something before December 31st that won't be perfect, but it will be done.

Dimsdale: But in the meantime, nothing gets done?

Alan Simpson: Not between now and November 6th because you'll get your little tootsie's burned awful bad by your constituents.

Simpson says politicians are too afraid of voter backlash to cut government benefits or raise taxes to pay for them. Meanwhile, the federal flood insurance program is about to expire. There are nearly 80 empty federal judgeships. And the nation's surface transportation program is on its ninth short-term extension.

Michigan's Transportation Director Kirk Steudle says congressional dithering is forcing states to hold up infrastructure repairs.

Kirk Steudle: Some of them have some major projects that they've said, 'Look that project, you know a big bridge project, a big road project, is not going forward until this thing is solved because that's the money that they've got allocated towards it.'

How bad is Washington's partisan gridlock? Veteran congressional observer Norman Ornstein has co-authored a new book called "It's Even Worse Than It Looks."

Norman Ornstein: I think the biggest poster child for the dysfunction we have in our government is the debt bomb. This is something, if we don't deal with it in the next five years or so could lead to catastrophe.

Ornstein thinks disgruntled moderate voters are staying home leaving Washington polarized by passionate partisans.
He suggests requiring citizens to show up at the polls, like in Australia, or at least enticing them with a lottery that awards one lucky voter a million dollar prize. The odds of that passing are probably similar to those of winning the lottery.

In Washington, I'm John Dimsdale for Marketplace.

About the author

As head of Marketplace’s Washington, D.C. bureau, John Dimsdale provides insightful commentary on the intersection of government and money for the entire Marketplace portfolio.
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Perhaps not always, but lack of legislation can be a good thing.

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