The administration yesterday put off any decision on how to help the nation's ailing sugar producers, including forcing a rise in consumer prices.
The President's Economic Policy Group delayed action out of concern over what tightened sugar import quotas might do to foreign policy and the effect of price increases on consumers. Every penny-a-pound increase in sugar prices is estimated to cost Americans $225 million a year.
The policy group, an advisory board to the President, said no recommendations should be sent to the White House until completion of a report by the U.S. International Trade Commission on the domestic impact of sugar imports.
The commission is cheduled to vote Thursday on whether sugar imports have damaged or threaten to damage domestic producers, but its final report and any recommendations for easing imports could come as late as March 17.
Agriculture Secretary Bob Bergland, who said he had hoped for more immediate action on sugar, said a week's delay is "of no great import." But a month's delay, he said, would worry him. Bergland said several major contracts are under negotiation now and delay on a sugar policy could delay the contracts.
Bergland said he is "satisfied" with yesterday's development, which followed discussions at "considerable length," notably by State, Treasury and Office of Management and Budget officials and Charles L. Schultze, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers.
An Agriculture Department task force had recommended to Bergland that sugar imports be reduced and that a price support system be instituted that would set a market price at 13 to 14 cents a pounds. Sugar and Friday at 10.85 cents a pound - well below the estimated average cost of production, 15 cents a pound.
Bergland said he presented various options and alternatives at yesterday's policy group meeting. He said "no idea was rejected or shot down." On Friday a high Treasury official had said the department was concerned over the consumer and foreign trade aspects of the quotas and price supports.
Bergland said he will be chairman of an Inter-agency group that will study the trade commission's findings on imports. The group will study a broad range of choices and bring recommendations to the economic policy group.
If the trade commission determines there is actual damage to U.S. producters or the threat of damage, it makes recommendations to the President on what countermeasures to take.
Labour and civil rights group have been seeking to include field workers in any government program designed to help growers, but Bergland said that issue was not discussed yesterday.
The old Sugar Act, which protected U.S. sugar producers for 40 years with tight quotas, expired Jan. 1, 1975, after Congress refused to extend it at a time of record high sugar prices. It provide some benefits to workers as well.
The task force recommended that the quota be a world total, rather than a country-by-country allotment. The country-by-country system was regarded by many as the seamiest aspect of the old sugar quota system, in which foreign countries paid lobbyists to barter with members of Congress over who got how much.