Sugar lobby sweetens deal for House Republicans protecting subsidy

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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In what appeared to be a demonstration of the sugar industry’s political influence, the Senate voted 50 to 46 this month to table an amendment to the farm bill that would have phased out tariffs that protect domestic producers from cheaper offshore sugar.

The amendment, offered by New Hampshire Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and cosponsored by a bipartisan group of senators, aimed to phase out the federal government’s sugar program over several years. Voting against the amendment were 30 Democrats and 16 Republicans, including potential GOP vice presidential nominees Marco Rubio and John Thune.

The sugar industry has spent tens of millions of dollars lobbying and donating to politicians to keep sugar tariffs and subsidies in place so that sugarcane and beet farmers and others in the production chain can enjoy artificially high profits and keep foreign competition out of the marketplace.

In 2012 alone, the sugar industry spent nearly $2.5 million industry-wide on lobbying, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. On congressional elections this year, the industry has contributed $2.8 million in individual contributions and PAC funding.

Data collected from the Center for Responsive Politics show that the 16 Republicans who voted against sugar reform have received nearly $850,000 in individual and PAC contributions form the sugar industry since 1990.

The biggest recipients of sugar dollars among the sixteen were Georgia Rep. Saxby Chambliss and Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, who received more than $150,000 and $122,000, respectively. Both voted to table the sugar reform amendment.

Rubio and Thune have also received sizable donations from the sugar industry: $26,700 for Rubio and $45,150 for Thune.

Big Sugar’s influence goes back decades. A Heritage Foundation analysis shows that sugar industry PACs contributed more than all other U.S. crop PACs combined, with a share of 55.1 percent of crop industry donations between 2002 and 2012. And sugar lobbying expenditures were 34.2 percent of all U.S. crop lobbying expenditures between 2002 and 2011.

One group alone, the American Sugar Alliance (ASA), has spent $400,000 lobbying so far in 2012. The lobbyists ASA hired had connections within Congress and the Department of Agriculture. One lobbyist hired by ASA, Tom Sell, served on the House Committee on Agriculture and was influential in crafting of the farm bill in 2002, and he worked at the Department of Agriculture from 2001 to 2004, serving as Director of Intergovernmental Affairs from 2003 to 2004. Another lobbyist, Jeff Harrison, was counsel to the House Committee on Agriculture.

ASA also hired former Texas Republican Rep. Larry Combest, who was chairman of the House Agricultural Committee and the “chief architect and force behind the 2002 Farm Security and Rural Investment Act,” according to his lobbying firm’s website.

Sugar tariffs keep the price of sugar high, forcing U.S. consumers and businesses to pay 41 percent more for sugar, according to the Heritage Foundation. As a result, products like breakfast cereal, soft drinks, crackers, cookies and even beer become more expensive.

A study by the American Enterprise Institute estimates that sugar tariffs cost U.S. consumers $2.4 billion on average annually and benefit sugar producers to the tune of $1.4 billion per year. This results in an income transfer of $1 billion from consumers to sugar producers.

The U.S. Department of Commerce study also showed that every one job saved in the sugar industry from high prices costs three confectionery manufacturing jobs.

Sen. Pat Toomey submitted another amendment on Wednesday, which the Senate rejected in a 53-46 vote. Of the 16 Republicans who voted the first proposed amendment down, only one, Missouri Sen. Blunt, ultimately voted to approve the amendment. This time, however, 18 Republicans voted against sugar reform.

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