Law­mak­ers re­pel chal­lenge to sugar pro­gram

The Maui News - - NEWS - By ANDREW TAY­LOR The As­so­ci­ated Press

WASHINGTON — The U.S. sugar in­dus­try on Thurs­day won an eas­ier-thanex­pected vic­tory over food pro­ces­sors, soft drink man­u­fac­tur­ers and candy mak­ers try­ing to re­write the govern­ment’s much-crit­i­cized sugar pro­gram, a web of price sup­ports, loans and tar­iffs that props up prices for the com­mod­ity.

In a de­ci­sive 278-137 vote, the House re­jected a bid by Rep. Vir­ginia Foxx, R-N.C., to sig­nif­i­cantly weaken the pro­gram and in­vite more for­eign com­pe­ti­tion.

The sugar pro­gram was one of the key bat­tles in this year’s farm bill, a five-year re­newal of fed­eral farm and nutri­tion pol­icy that is again proving to be a headache for Repub­li­cans con­trol­ling Congress.

This year, con­ser­va­tives hop­ing to force progress on un­re­lated im­mi­gra­tion is­sues are lin­ing up to threaten pas­sage of the over­all farm mea­sure. The move by the hard-right House Free­dom Cau­cus ap­pears to have put pas­sage of the mea­sure to­day in jeop­ardy.

GOP lead­ers are pro­mot­ing this year’s re­newal of the mea­sure as tight­en­ing work and job train­ing re­quire­ments for food stamps. But the food stamp pro­posal has driven Democrats away from the bill. That means Repub­li­cans have to pass the mea­sure with min­i­mal de­fec­tions, and it puts pres­sure on Repub­li­cans who have crit­i­cized costly farm sub­si­dies in the past.

Free­dom Cau­cus Chair­man Mark Mead­ows, R-NC., says that “the time is now” to deal with im­mi­gra­tion and that the farm bill doesn’t face a press­ing dead­line. He said farm­ers “want us to deal with im­mi­gra­tion and the farm bill both.”

Mead­ows and other Free­dom Cau­cus mem­bers met with House lead­ers into the evening Thurs­day to try to re­solve their dis­putes. “Ev­ery­body’s try­ing to get to ‘yes,’ ” Mead­ows told reporters, but ques­tions re­main un­re­solved.

The sugar pro­gram is part of an amal­gam of com­mod­ity sup­port pro­grams that have sweep­ing back­ing in Repub­li­can-lean­ing farm coun­try. But many Repub­li­cans op­pose the sugar pro­gram, say­ing it runs counter to the party’s free mar­ket bear­ings.

“It’s one of the most ridicu­lous pro­grams in the en­tire fed­eral govern­ment, and that’s say­ing some­thing,” said Rep. Tom McClin­tock, R-Calif.

Some GOP mod­er­ates are un­easy about the new work stan­dards for food stamps, which the Con­gres­sional Bud­get Of­fice es­ti­mates would drive up to 2 mil­lion peo­ple off the pro­gram.

Cur­rently, adults ages 18 to 59 are re­quired to work part time or agree to ac­cept a job if they’re of­fered one. Stricter rules ap­ply to able-bod­ied adults with­out de­pen­dents be­tween the ages of 18 and 49. They are sub­ject to a three­month limit of ben­e­fits un­less they meet a work re­quire­ment of 80 hours per month.

The new bill ex­pands that re­quire­ment to ap­ply to all work ca­pa­ble adults, man­dat­ing that they ei­ther work or par­tic­i­pate in work train­ing for 20 hours per week with the ex­cep­tion of se­niors, preg­nant women, care­tak­ers of chil­dren un­der the age of 6, or peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties.

For years, the twice-a-decade ef­fort to re­write the farm bill has re­lied on a coali­tion of farm­state Repub­li­cans who back fed­eral agri­cul­ture sub­si­dies and other as­sis­tance and Democrats sup­port­ing food stamps. This has proved frus­trat­ing to con­ser­va­tives seek­ing to make changes to ei­ther side of the mea­sure.

Foxx’s sugar plan would have scrapped pro­duc­tion lim­its, given the Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture more power to boost sugar im­ports and elim­i­nated a govern­ment pro­gram that sells sur­pluses to ethanol pro­duc­ers.

“Let’s be crys­tal clear about what the sugar pro­gram does: It puts the govern­ment in charge of de­cid­ing how much sugar will be pro­duced in this coun­try, which in­flates the cost — and it guar­an­tees the pro­cess­ing in­dus­try a base profit by giv­ing them sub­si­dized loans,” Foxx said Thurs­day. “We stopped these prac­tices years ago for other commodities and only sugar is left with this sweet deal.”

A com­pa­ra­ble vote five years ago was very close, but Thurs­day’s tally was a run­away. Democrats voted over­whelm­ingly to de­fend the sugar pro­gram, as did a ma­jor­ity of Repub­li­cans, heed­ing warn­ings that un­rav­el­ing it would threaten the en­tire farm bill.

House Agri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee Chair­man Mike Con­away, R-Texas, said Foxx’s pro­posal was a “poi­son pill” since its pas­sage could bleed sup­port for the un­der­ly­ing farm bill and force Repub­li­cans in some ar­eas to take a po­lit­i­cally tough vote.

In­deed, a string of law­mak­ers from Min­nesota, Florida, Michi­gan, Texas and Ne­braska rose up to de­fend the pro­gram and the thou­sands of jobs it sup­ports in their states.

Pas­sage of the farm bill is a pri­or­ity for GOP lead­ers, who are ea­ger to pitch to vot­ers its tougher work re­quire­ments for food stamps, a party pri­or­ity that polls well with vot­ers.

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