WASHINGTON — When Congress returns to business this week, it will be met not by the Code Pink antiwar protesters or the Tea Party supporters who often gathered near the Capitol last year. Instead, farmers will be out in force, rallying for a bill that lawmakers failed to pass before they recessed five weeks ago.The Senate passed a bipartisan farm bill weeks ago, and has been waiting helplessly while House Speaker John Boehner failed to lead and control his caucus. The bill the House agriculture committee came up with pleases no one. Boehner can't get it passed without Democratic support, and Democrats refuse to support it because it decimates the food stamp program. Tea party Republicans refuse to support it because it leaves some shreds of the program in place. So it languishes while the House has a mess of votes on bills that won't be taken up by the Senate. And the Senate Democratic leadership fills up the time not spent on dealing with important bills returned from the House by rubbing Boehner's incompetence in his face and taking votes that make Republicans look bad.
That unfinished bit of business threatens to cut off aid to farmers across the nation. But lawmakers, fresh off their parties’ conventions, appear to favor action on other bills that emphasize their political agendas over actual lawmaking. [...]
In the House, Republicans will vote on a bill that seeks to phase out the Energy Department’s loan guarantee program that financed Solyndra, the bankrupt maker of solar power equipment. They also want Senate Democrats to come up with a measure like one already passed by the House that would replace the large-scale budget cuts for the Pentagon that are scheduled to take effect with other trims on Dec. 31. The military cuts were set in motion by an agreement to raise the debt ceiling last summer, and they became automatic when a special select committee failed to come up with at least $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction over 10 years.
Beyond the farm bill, they have some kind of important stuff to do, like keeping the government running. They've come up with a six-month, stop-gap appropriations bill that so far Boehner's caucus isn't raising hell about, and should pass. That still means, however, that the "fiscal cliff" fight will still have to occur in the lame-duck, where all the stuff set to happen on Jan. 1 has to either be averted or be resolved. That's a hornet's nest of issues: expiring Bush tax cuts, expiring unemployment benefits and adjusted payments for Medicare providers; the automatic spending cuts triggered by last year's Budget Control Act.
How that lame-duck session progresses depends on the results of the election. But there's one thing you can count on: Republicans will still fight to obstruct just about everything. If a miracle happens and Romney wins, they want to put off all those decisions until they can do real damage with him and Ryan. That's doubled if they manage to take the Senate. And if the Democrats win big, Republicans will want to leave as big as a mess as possible for them to deal with in the new year.
Through it all, for the first time in modern history, Congress won't bother to pass a farm bill.