As powerful lobbies go, "Big Sugar" doesn't sound that menacing. But it is indeed the "biggest and the meanest of the farm lobbies," as one expert put it to The Inquirer. And it lived up to that reputation in Washington this week, when it defeated a bipartisan effort to rein in federal subsidies that pointlessly inflate sugar prices.
Granted, Big Sugar's chief rival, "Big Candy," doesn't sound so tough either. But confectioners weary of paying propped-up prices for sugar weren't the only losers here. The sugar industry's victory also comes at the expense of American consumers, the free market, and good government.
Sens. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D., N.H.) led the latest of several efforts to scale back federal programs that protect domestic sugar growers. They had broad support in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, both home to king-size candy concerns that are lined up against sugar farmers. But as The Inquirer's Jonathan Tamari reported, the opposition to sugar subsidies is more diverse than a box of chocolates, ranging from antitax warrior Grover Norquist to environmentalists who fear over-farming in Florida's Everglades.
Unfortunately, the proposed Toomey-Shaheen amendment to the farm bill was defeated, thanks mainly to the influence of growers in Southern sugarcane states and Northern sugar-beet states. Their vote keeps in place a Soviet-style set of supports that maintains a minimum price for sugar, protects the industry from foreign imports, and puts the government on the hook for buying surpluses.
Toomey has called the sugar programs "corporate welfare at its worst." The term is particularly apt given that lawmakers appear determined to cut food stamps even as they maintain huge subsidies for growers of sugar and other crops. The New York Times reported this week that Rep. Stephen Fincher (R., Tenn.), a prominent proponent of food-stamp cuts, has collected $3.5 million in farm subsidies since 1999.
Each side of the sugar-candy divide spends millions on lobbying and political donations. Each claims to support tens of thousands of jobs (though the candy-making jobs are likely more sustainable, and sustaining, than farm work). And perhaps the lawmakers involved are only representing their respective parochial interests (and potential sugar daddies).
But this isn't just a zero-sum dispute between two groups of food barons and their representatives. As Toomey has noted, the sugar supports - like most of the agricultural giveaways packed into the $955 billion farm bill - are simply bad policy. They misallocate government and consumer dollars entirely for the benefit of a single special interest, and for no discernible or defensible public purpose. In that context, the sugar lobby's latest victory leaves a distinctly bitter taste.