Sugar war pits farmers against candy-makers

Lobbyists for and against a federal sugar program are preparing for a bitter floor fight over the farm bill.  

Industries that use sugar in their products are sending lobbyists to Capitol Hill to brief aides on legislation that would reform price and trade protections for the domestic crop. 

Sugar producers are countering with a massive ad blitz that takes aim at “Big Candy’s Greed.” 

Both sides in the subsidy debate say U.S. jobs — and the very survival of their industries — are at stake.

“We are not trying to put the [sugar] growers out of business. We are trying to have our own businesses survive,” said Liz Clark, the vice president of government affairs for the National Confectioners Association, which includes brands like Hershey, Mars Chocolate, Wrigley and Jelly Belly. 

Candy companies argue federal support for sugar is distorting the market and trade deals, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, while driving up prices. They plan to lobby for big policy changes in this year’s farm bill.

“The thinking is this year — with almost 100 new members in Congress — that there is an appetite for reform,” Clark said. “We are optimistic that we will get this done.”

The arguments against the protections don’t fly with U.S. sugar growers, who say their industry will crumble if federal supports are removed.

“Absent U.S. sugar policy, we would be essentially wiped out by foreign suppliers who are not necessarily more efficient than us but are much more heavily subsidized than us,” said Jack Roney, director of economics and policy analysis at the American Sugar Alliance. “We are on the ropes considering how low our prices have gone down.”

Last week, a coalition of U.S.-based sugar growers, processors and refiners ran several print ads in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and Beltway publications taking aim at what they call “Big Candy’s Greed.”

Roney said the group ran the ads because lawmakers are beginning to focus on drafting a new farm bill, which was not finished last Congress.

“We are going to see a repeat of what happened in 2012 since Congress couldn’t get a farm bill done last year,” Roney said. “This is a time of intense congressional interest in [agricultural] policy.” 

The sugar growers, made up of sugar cane and sugar beet farmers, are a powerful lobbying force, with friends in high places on Capitol Hill.

Lawmakers like Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharSenate Commerce presses Facebook, Cambridge Analytic for answers on data Overnight Tech: Facebook faces crisis over Cambridge Analytica data | Lawmakers demand answers | What to watch for next | Day one of AT&T's merger trial | Self-driving Uber car kills pedestrian Overnight Cybersecurity: Trump-linked data firm Cambridge Analytica attracts scrutiny | House passes cyber response team bill | What to know about Russian cyberattacks on energy grid MORE (D-Minn.) and Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), ranking member on the House Agriculture Committee, have fought to defend the sugar program in the past. 

But the candy-makers and their allies aren’t exactly slouches in the lobbying game. 

The confectioners’ trade group helps lead the Coalition for Sugar Reform, which includes groups like the American Bakers Association and the Sweetener Users Association. The group also includes big-name business lobbies like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and watchdogs like the Consumer Federation of America.

The coalition has thrown its weight behind the Sugar Reform Act. The legislation would lower price supports for sugar and give greater flexibility to quotas for sugar imports.

Clark led a congressional briefing with lawmakers’ staff this past Friday to discuss the Sugar Reform Act in hopes of building support for it.

Sens. Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenCompanies fretting over ‘foreign agents’ label Senators demand cyber deterrence strategy from Trump Overnight Cybersecurity: Dems ask voting machine vendors if they shared code with Russia | Senate panel advances bill reorganizing DHS cyber office | FBI chief talks new digital threats MORE (D-N.H.), Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Mark KirkMark Steven KirkHigh stakes as Trump heads to Hill Five things to watch for at Trump-Senate GOP meeting Giffords, Scalise highlight party differences on guns MORE (R-Ill.) and Reps. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.), Earl BlumenauerEarl BlumenauerWay to go, Ted Poe Lawmakers promote pet adoption at Paws for Luck 10 governors shaping the future of politics MORE (D-Ore.) and Danny Davis (D-Ill.) introduced the bill in their respective chambers. 

Andrew Wimer, a spokesman for Pitts, said the lawmaker is looking forward to including his legislation as part of the farm bill this year.

“We feel like the House as a whole would be supportive of reform of sugar policy. We look forward introducing the legislation as an amendment on the floor when the farm bill comes up,” Wilmer said. 

Shaheen similarly plans to introduce the Sugar Reform Act as an amendment to the farm bill when it’s on the Senate floor, according to Mark Gordon, a spokesman for Shaheen.

Shaheen offered the same bill as an amendment to the farm bill last year. Though it failed to pass, 46 senators voted in favor of it. 

The fight over agricultural policy could be coming soon to Washington. Once budgetary battles have been resolved, lawmakers are expected to move quickly to farm bill legislation.

Sen. Debbie StabenowDeborah (Debbie) Ann StabenowSenators target 'gag clauses' that hide potential savings on prescriptions Nonprofit leaders look to continue work with lawmakers to strengthen charitable giving 10 Senate Democrats are up for reelection in Trump country MORE (D-Mich.), chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, has indicated that she plans to mark up a new farm bill in April this year.

The House Agriculture Committee will be renewing its farm bill efforts in short order, according to a committee spokeswoman, noting that it’s soon to discuss a specific timeline but that sometime in the spring or early summer is possible for a markup.