The Sugar Swamp Remains Undrained

Efforts to reform the U.S. sugar program fell short last week when an amendment to the farm bill offered by Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-North Carolina) was voted down by the lopsided margin of 137-278. Foxx couldn’t even persuade a majority of her fellow Republicans to support the measure, with only 96 voting in favor and 132 in opposition. Democrats, meanwhile, voted to preserve the sugar status quo by a split of 41-146. For all of the laments one hears about a lack of bipartisanship in Washington, the vote was a powerful reminder that both parties are still able to rally towards a common purpose when special interests and government power are threatened.

report from Agri-Pulse nicely captures this dynamic (emphasis mine):

The top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, had expressed confidence that Democrats would help defeat the farm bill amendment despite their opposition to the overall legislation, and he delivered…Peterson, who represents one of the largest sugar-growing districts, said he gave an impassioned plea to fellow Democrats Wednesday morning to vote against the bill, reminding them of his leadership in opposing the overall bill. He said he told them that “the only thing I cared about was sugar and I needed their help.”

[House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas], said he called in favors from GOP colleagues and credited GOP leaders for also helping defeat the sugar measure. He told reporters that he considered  the amendment an “existential threat” to farm policy because it would have emboldened critics to go after other forms of commodity programs. 

Peterson hails from the party that claims to stand up for the little guy against economic elites while Conaway’s fellow partisans regularly profess skepticism of government and a belief in the free market. The reality, however, is plain for all to see. 

As I detail in a recent policy analysis, the U.S. sugar program is an absurd exercise in discredited central planning whereby the federal government deliberately restricts the supply of sugar in order to drive its price higher than it would otherwise be. Functioning as a wealth transfer from U.S. consumers and businesses to the sugar industry, the program is arguably the most egregious example of the federal government operating at the expense of the majority to benefit a well-connected minority. 

Notably, the reform effort led by Rep. Foxx—while a welcome step in the right direction—would have left significant amounts of the sugar program in place. Tariff rate quotas, for example, which restrain access to cheaper sugar from abroad would have been mostly untouched while government loans to sugar processors were slated to see their collateral demands only slightly raised. Yet even modest reform was too much to stomach for the sugar lobby. The fight for sugar sanity goes on.