Farmers in Wisconsin and across the nation are wondering what last week's election results might mean for the possibility of passage of a Farm Bill in the lame duck session of Congress - or beyond.
Following the election, Eric Cantor (R-VA), who is the House Majority Leader, was quoted as saying that a vote will take place on the Farm Bill before the end of the year.
That statement was praised by Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee (and who just won re-election to her seat in the Senate.) Under her leadership the Senate committee and full Senate passed its version of farm legislation in June.
The House Agriculture Committee passed its version of a Farm Bill out of committee in July but Republican leadership of the House did not bring the measure up for a floor vote before lawmakers left town in August.
In September, a wide variety of national farm and commodity groups mounted a full-on campaign to push lawmakers for finalization of the Farm Bill before it expired Sept. 30. They organized a rally for a "Farm Bill Now" in Washington but it didn't convince leadership of the House to bring the bill up for a vote.
Cantor's office has since backed away from the statement that he would schedule a vote on the farm and food-stamp measure when Congress returns Nov. 13 for what is called the "lame duck" session between the elections and the seating of the new Congress in January.
Conventional wisdom was that House leaders wanted to wait and see how the elections turned out to determine when to vote on farm legislation. The cuts the House wants to make in spending are much larger than those passed in either the Senate's version of the measure or in the House committee's version.
Karen Gefvert, director of governmental relations for Wisconsin Farm Bureau, said she thinks something will come together in Congress that will fold Farm Bill negotiations in with other fiscal matters. The Bush-era tax cuts are expiring at the end of the year and many in Congress want to extend them or at least parts of them.
Senators have weeded through tax exemptions and come up with removing enough of them to bring in an extra $32 billion over 10 years, which is seen as a way to "pay for" the next 10 years of farm programs.
"As I understand it, that may be passed as a package," Gefvert explained. "But exactly what form it takes will depend on what they can agree on."
The timeline is crucial for getting the legislation done. Gefvert noted that a new Congressional Budget Office (CBO) "baseline" of the cost of programs will come out for farm programs in March. "Nobody wants to wait until then."
She believes the Farm Bill and the tax cut extension are a perfect matchup and would be a "natural" thing for Congress to put together in one piece of legislation.
Rep. Reid Ribble, Wisconsin's 8th District Congressman, who just won re-election, is the state's only representative on the House Agriculture Committee. He voted for the House committee's version of the Farm Bill, and took a pragmatic view when it didn't get a chance to be voted on by the full House.
House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) deliberately waited until the Senate was done with its version of the bill, Ribble explained, and then there weren't enough days in the House calendar to get such a massive bill debated and passed. With the August recess and then only eight working days in September it just wasn't possible.
"I wanted a thoughtful process rather than a fast process," he said.
Now back in Washington, Ribble told Wisconsin State Farmer that he sees several options for a Farm Bill. One is that there could be a "fiscal cliff" deal that would use savings in the farm and food programs to "pay for" other budget items.
Farm programs would in essence be "hitching a ride" on the fact that Congress wants to address the looming fiscal issues.
The House Agriculture Committee's version and the Senate version "are very similar" Ribble said and the savings achieved by both of those measures would be very tempting to the White House or Congressional leaders looking to make a budget deal.
"It all depends on the negotiations that are going on between the Speaker Boehner and the White House and we may know a little more about that later in the week," he said by telephone Tuesday afternoon (Nov. 13.)
Another option would be an extension of the 2008 Farm Bill; that would have to incorporate several disaster measures that expired a year ago as well as the Milk Income Loss Contract (MILC) program, which over its history has been most helpful to states with larger numbers of smaller farms, like Wisconsin.
The MILC program contracted Sept. 1 and then expired along with the rest of the 2008 Farm Bill at the end of September.
A number of organic and conservation programs would also have to be addressed in any extension package.
One of the trickier aspects of an extension, from a budgetary standpoint, is that the extension will cost more than a new Farm Bill. It will cost even more than the currently standing farm programs Ribble said, especially when already expired programs are figured back into it.
Ribble said he doesn't see much movement to bring the Farm Bill up in regular session, but added that things could change as the last session of the year gets rolling.
With such a massive bill there could be as many as 300 amendments introduced and debated, which could take three to four days of legislative calendar, he said, although leadership could limit the number of amendments through the rule process.
His constituents, says Ribble, have "not been bashful" about letting him know their feelings on the legislation and he had passed all his call logs on to House leaders.
For now, he believes that the most likely scenario for Farm Bill passage is a measure that matches up the budgetary savings of a new Farm Bill with "fiscal cliff" legislation.
There has been a lot of talk about the "fiscal cliff" or "sequestration" both terms to describe the automatic spending cuts and tax increases that were put in place by Congress as a way to force action by the so-called "Super Committee."
That bi-partisan group failed to reach agreement on huge budget cuts, leaving the looming automatic budget cuts in place by law.
The idea was that the automatic cuts - sequestration - would be so onerous that both parties would be forced to compromise. But that didn't happen.
Now, the next session of Congress will have to deal with sequestration, Gefvert said.