You can pretty well judge priorities in Washington simply by a matter of speed. If issues sit out there forever without being addressed, the political powers that be don’t really care about them. If they get attended to right away, they must have a certain importance attached. And this isn’t about lip service, but follow-through.

Two items exemplify this today. On the one hand, you have a clutch of rules for food safety. Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act at the end of 2010, in the lame duck session. The Food and Drug Administration had until late 2011 to finalize the rules associated with that law, and they made their deadline. But since then, for six months, the Office of Management and Budget has sat on those proposed rules, meaning the current food safety system, the one that’s been in place for 70 years, the one that Congress said was completely insufficient to meet modern needs back in 2010 has not changed at all 18 months later. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch penned an editorial about this delay.

Consumer advocates, health-oriented research institutions, food industry trade associations and major food companies all want the rules released. All have written to the White House urging it to do so promptly. President Barack Obama needs to prod his regulatory overseer, Cass Sunstein, administrator of OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, to release the rules so that the long process of public comment and revision can get started [...]

There’s no denying the need for improvement. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 48 million people suffered from food-borne illnesses in this country last year; 128,000 of them were so sick that they needed hospitalization. Three thousand people died.

Last fall, for example, 38 Missourians and nine Illinoisans were among 58 people who fell ill from E. coli contamination linked to tainted romaine lettuce from salad bars at nine Schnucks stores. The contamination was traced to a farm that grew the lettuce.

I guess people just shouldn’t eat at a place called Schnucks, then, because Washington is taking their sweet old time with the matter. This is twice as long as the normal schedule of three months for review by OIRA.

On the other hand, of all the urgent matters that expire at the end of the year, including a clutch of fiscal matters that, if left unaddressed, will cause a recession according to the Congressional Budget Office, what’s the one expiring measure that Congress is already working to extend? Why, it’s the ability for your government to spy on your personal communications, of course.

A key Senate panel voted Tuesday to extend a contested 2008 provision of foreign intelligence surveillance law that is set to expire at year’s end.

The vote is the first step toward what the Obama administration hopes will be a speedy renewal of an expanded authority under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to monitor the U.S. e-mails and phone calls of overseas targets in an effort to prevent international terrorist attacks on the country [...]

The measure in question enables authorities to collect electronic communications in the United States without a specific warrant for each person as long as a surveillance court signs off on the targeting procedures as “reasonably designed” to ensure that those targeted are outside the United States.

It was a bipartisan vote on the Senate Intelligence Committee; only Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, who have been waging a battle against secret interpretations of surveillance law, put up much of a fight against it.

This law will actually reach the Supreme Court, which just took up the ACLU’s suit against it. Maybe that suggests the need to take a closer look at the statute before extending it to 2017. But not for Congress. After all, some Terrorist is out there on Gmail or Pinterest or somewhere. We have to capture everyone’s electronic data in order to find them.

So there it is. It’s not really hard to figure out Washington’s priorities: just check the odometer.