Farm bill work will start up any day now, with the Senate Ag Committee likely to take the lead. Most observers think the committee should be able to present its version of the omnibus farm bill by Memorial Day. Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) is up for re-election, and she and her staff are geared up to make that deadline.
Before any markup in the Senate Ag panel, there will be several hearings—but just a few, as Stabenow and company indicate that they are ready to put language on paper and get votes under way. If the Senate timeline is met, the House Ag Committee will then spring into action with a deadline by the July recess.
When the markup documents will actually move to the floors of the House and Senate is less clear. The debate on the House floor is likely to be more active, since several members will no doubt want to offer up amendments to the package, with some of those likely to be controversial.
Depending on when both chambers wrap up their work, final approval might even be pushed into a post-election, lame-duck session of Congress. That would still mean completion in 2012.
With all of the uncertainty, some observers think that the bill might not be acted on until 2013. Those in that camp say Congress has so far been able to accomplish little and a farm bill will just be added to a long list.
Others believe that some Republican senators might want to drag their feet on a farm bill if they think their party has a solid chance to retake control of the Senate in 2013; there are 23 Democrats up for re-election and only 10 Republicans.
Kicking the farm bill can into 2013 has its own set of issues. For one, the current farm bill authorities that expire at the end of September would have to be extended—and nothing is simple in Congress nowadays, not even a "simple" extension.
At the annual American Farm Bureau Federation meeting in early January, President Bob Stallman would not commit on whether the bill will be approved in 2012 or if the current version would be extended.
"I’ve probably been asked that a dozen times, and it’s hard to predict in an election year, unless both sides see it in their best interests to get a farm bill passed," he said. "The alternative is an extension … and there are a host of issues. Ask me in three or four months; I’ll have a better idea on that then."