The 111th Congress had a lot of ground to cover in a short time when it returned from the August recess this week.

Congress will depart for the election trail on Oct. 8. While that’s enough time for the House to rewrite the Constitution if it had the mind to, that’s barely enough time for the Senate to approve the minutes from the previous day’s session. That’s no criticism of either chamber, but simply an acknowledgement of how the Constitution’s framers meant the two bodies to work.

The 800-pound gorilla in the room is what to do about former President George W. Bush’s expiring 2001 and 2003 tax relief. President Barack Obama and some congressional Democrats have been arguing for an extension for all but the highest income earners. Meanwhile, Republicans and many conservative and moderate Democrats argue that in today’s economy, now is no time to increase taxes on anyone.

One consideration for Congress is how to resolve the expiry of the death tax relief before rates and exemptions jump to pre-repeal levels, with the Senate’s No. 2 Republican working with conservative Democrat Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas to advance greater relief through lower rates and much-higher exemptions.

Conventional wisdom is that, unless Congress and the president can agree to at least a two-year extension of tax relief for all Americans, this issue is likely to spill into a lame-duck session (which presumably would begin in November). Therefore, some Democrats are likely to argue on the campaign trail that Republicans blocked extension of middle class relief by holding out for relief for higher income earners. Republicans will counter that those high-end earners include small businesses and add that all Americans are threatened with the highest tax hike in history, leaving it to voters to decide who boasts the correct message.

Whether a lame-duck session can settle the matter is by no means a foregone conclusion. Congress’ eyes are often much bigger than its collective stomach when looking at what it can accomplish in these kinds of mini-sessions.

Nearly all of the annual appropriations bills still have to be completed, unless Congress simply opts for a continuing resolution to extend the current law. If the tax issue is ultimately not resolved at the end of this year, next year would mean some very heavy lifting by the new Congress and a lot of uncertainty everywhere else.

Small business tax bill

Other items Congress may attempt to address before leaving for campaigning include the small business tax legislation that has languished for months as well as a new set of small business tax incentives meant to buoy the sagging economic recovery.

Congress may also attempt reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Defense authorization bill.

In addition, reports indicate that there could be some activity on food-safety legislation, but that may be too late for a successful effort at least at this point.

And, as already mentioned, something has to be done about all the unfinished appropriations bills that have to be passed each year, with the most likely scenario being a simple extension of existing law.

But, perhaps, the most interesting tidbits about the 111th Congress are the legislative issues that have ultimately fallen flat under their own weight, but which have, in no small part, figured into the collective anxiety that has been felt in farm country over the past couple of years. The infamous “cap and trade” bill, the Clean Water Restoration Act, and chemical security legislation are just a few of the legislative items that were on tap — and that all look good to the naked eye — until you read the fine print and recognize the terrible bureaucratic overreach and the crippling impacts on jobs and the economy.

It is fortunate for U.S. agriculture that like-minded Republicans and Democrats, such as Sens. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., and Lincoln, have quelled many of these issues that would have severely harmed farmers’ ability to compete in the world market.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture continues to grapple with how to keep the promise to Lincoln on disaster aid made by the White House. Despite the hubbub about the lack of funding or authority, some level of relief still appears to be a matter of when, rather than if.

The 111th Congress has been a wild ride, with lots of steep ups and downs, sharp curves, falling rocks, and more than a few cliffs. But, the proverbial other side of the mountain is near and the sun’s breaking. Hopefully, there will be some time to bask in it before the ride begins anew early next year.