Crit­ics say US sugar pro­gram a sour deal for con­sumers

The Trentonian (Trenton, NJ) - - BUSINESS - By Andrew Tay­lor

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.

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.

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 able-bod­ied 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 work­ca­pable 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 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.”

A vote is slated for Thurs­day evening.

House Agri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee Chair­man Mike Con­away, R-Texas, says Foxx’s pro­posal is 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.

“This is about pro­tect­ing Amer­i­can jobs, Amer­i­can hard-work­ing farm­ers from un­fair, un­due com­pe­ti­tion from around the world,” Con­away said. “We don’t let other prod­ucts come into this coun­try at below the cost of pro­duc­tion.”

Crit­ics of the sugar pro­gram say it has led to the clos­ing of U.S. candy fac­to­ries in the face of for­eign com­pe­ti­tion and means higher food prices in the gro­cery aisle.

Pas­sage of the 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.

“This is go­ing to get more peo­ple out of poverty. This is go­ing to get more peo­ple a steady job. This is go­ing to get more peo­ple mov­ing to­ward a good career,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

Pow­er­ful forces op­pose the move, in­clud­ing large, po­lit­i­cally ac­tive sugar pro­duc­ers and law­mak­ers from re­gions that grow sugar beets and cane. They warn it would open the door to cheaper sugar from over­seas and put do­mes­tic pro­duc­ers out of busi­ness. And they say that sugar costs the same now as it did decades ago while the price of pro­cessed food goes ever up­ward.

J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wis., pro­motes this year’s re­newal of the farm bill dur­ing a news con­fer­ence on Capi­tol Hill in Washington, Thurs­day. GOP lead­ers have crafted the bill as a mea­sure for tight­en­ing work and job train­ing re­quire­ments for...

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