Congress’ failure to enact a new farm bill last year “isn’t all bad,” says Daniel Ulmer, legislative assistant to Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., because the extension of the 2008 legislation continues direct and countercyclical payments and milk supports.

“The USDA recently announced that signups for the programs will begin Feb. 19,” he said via a video link to the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation’s annual commodity conference.

“While direct payments are not guaranteed this year, I think this extension makes it very likely. We’re very pleased with this; we feel that our producers, lenders, and others in agriculture industry can relax a little bit.”

While there are some budget matters to be addressed in the next several weeks that could potentially affect direct payments, Ulmer says, “I think the USDA will fulfill its obligations.”

Congress is facing several budget/financial-related issues, he says.

“Sequestration, or automatic across-the-bard spending reductions, will take place March 1 if Congress doesn’t (1) come up with its own spending reductions or (2) kick the can down the road, which unfortunately it has been done on previous occasions.

“Our goal is to prevent these across-the-board cuts that would affect all programs implemented by the USDA. It’s the position of Sen. Cochran and all agricultural state policy leaders that the House and Senate agriculture committees should develop meaningful farm policy reform and improvements rather than just blindly taking an ax to ag funding.”

Another potential issue in the near future is the debt ceiling debate, Ulmer says. “This basically the federal government’s credit limit. Often, when the government reaches that limit, they have to raise the cap or default on the nation’s financial obligations.

“While spending cuts aren’t directly tied to raising the debt limit, this often is a political strategy by whichever party is pushing it. More recently, it has been the Obama administration seeking to increase the limit.”

Congress also has to pass several appropriations bills in the coming months, he says.

“We’re going to be closely monitoring all these budget matters to see if any proposals materialize that reduce ag funding. Right now, there’s nothing specific, but it’s possible something could be introduced.

“The outcome of the budget debate will directly affect the next farm bill. The nation’s financial condition necessitates reform and reductions in government spending, and the funding amounts we’ve had for ag programs in previous years won’t be there. So, we can expect that some programs will be eliminated or altered to achieve savings.”

Sen. Cochran’s recently being named ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee “is positive,” Ulmer says, and “will give him a much stronger voice in representing southern agriculture interests as he works with Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., in crafting the new farm bill.”

Probably “the most important, and most complicated issue is what the farm safety net will look like in the future,” he says. “Our country’s serious financial condition, mixed with the current political environment, suggests there will be changes to programs in the 2008 farm bill.”