Call it, the mystery of the missing bill: The 2002 farm bill expired Sept. 30. Not only is there no 2007 farm bill to replace it, there is talk that it might take until December or later before a new bill is authorized.

Congress might extend the 2002 farm bill to make up for the legislative deficit in the meantime, says Larry Sanders, agriculture policy specialist with the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service in Stillwater.

"Recent farm bills have been late so it's not time to panic," Sanders says. "There seems to be inertia to maintain the status quo, so we could see an extension of the 2002 bill for a year or more."

The holdup is due to a stalemate in the U.S. Senate, as the administration and the House of Representatives have both published their versions of a 2007 farm bill.

"Historic precedent suggests that there's some wiggle room in terms of time," Sanders says. "Authority for commodity supports covers the 2007 crop year, which extends beyond Sept. 30. Congress could appropriate funds on discretionary programs to extend beyond the current expiration date."

In fact, Congress missed reauthorization deadlines for the 1985, 1990 and 1995 farm bills, yet continued funding for both mandatory and discretionary programs without underlying authority.

Theoretically, if a farm bill expires and a new one is not passed, the provision of "permanent legislation" takes effect. That legislation is made up of three acts passed 60 years to 70 years ago.

"When the 1990 farm bill expired in September 1995 and a new farm bill wasn't signed until April of 2002, then-agriculture secretary Glickman refused to "pull the trigger," recognizing the difficulties in doing so, and perhaps expecting Congress to eventually pass new legislation," Sanders says..

Some analysts see a protracted debate increasing the likelihood of extending the current bill and indicating that a new bill will look more like the old bill than something completely new.

Sanders says that recent movement in World Trade Organization negotiations has rekindled the issue of whether a new farm bill would be shaped to fit a WTO agreement or simply ignore trade agreements.

"One possibility is that a new farm bill or an extension of the existing bill could be passed for a short time until a new WTO agreement is reached," Sanders says. "Then, the farm bill might be modified to fit the WTO agreement or a new farm bill be drafted."