Critics: Sugar program a sour deal
WASHINGTON » Food processors, soft drink manufacturers and candy makers are squaring off against the U.S. sugar industry in a familiar battle over a program that props up sugar prices.
The sugar program, a web of price supports, loans and tariffs that critics say gouges consumers, is one of the key battles in this year’s farm bill, a five-year renewal of federal farm and nutrition policy that always proves to be a headache for Republicans controlling Congress.
This year is no exception as conservatives hoping to force progress on unrelated immigration issues are lining up to block passage of the farm measure. The move by the hard-right House Freedom caucus appears to have put passage of the measure Friday in great 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, scheduled for a vote Friday. That means Republicans have to pass the measure with minimal GOP defections, and it puts pressure on Republicans who have criticized costly farm subsidies in the past to vote for them this time.
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.”
The sugar program is part of
an amalgam of commodity support programs that have sweeping backing in Republican-leaning farm country. But most 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 ablebodied adults without dependents between the ages of 18 and 49, who are subject to a three-month 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-adecade effort to rewrite the farm bill has relied on a coalition of farm-state 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.
Rep. Virginia Foxx, R.N.C., is behind a plan that would scrap production limits, give the Department of Agriculture more power to boost sugar imports and eliminate 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.”
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wis., promotes this year’s renewal of the farm bill Thursday during a news conference on Capitol Hill.