In a vote on a two-sentence amendment, the House this week set up a sugar price support plan that could add 4 cents a pound to the current price.
Everything containing sugar - and 70 per cent of the sugar we eat is in prepared food like soft drinks, ice cream and cake - would also go up in price, a grand total of as much as $1 billion, not counting $100 million in tax dollars that would also be spent to raise farmers' income.
"That's a pretty substantial increase to get almost overnight," said Joseph M. Creed, chairman of a group of industrial sugar users.
"You really can't have that precipitous an increase in an ingredient without the cost being passed on to consumers," said a spokesman for Coca-Cola, one of the nation's biggest users of sugar.
The price of raw sugar is now about 10 cents a pound.
The support program was passed Thursday over administration objections and, according to sources, an administration lobbying effort that was "not handled very well." In addition, the measure was approved with organized labor support and variety of members of different political persuasions exchanging vote support for other issues.
"There were trades all over the place," said an administration lobbyist.
"Sugar was the reverse of food stamps," said Rep. Frederick W. Richmond (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Agriculture consumer subcommittee and a supporter of the sugar plan. "We did build up a very good working urban-rural coalition. There was nothing sub rosa about the thing. It was my job to convince urban members of Congress to support the family farmer and convince rural members to support cities.
"It was an awareness campaign . . . and it succeeded."
"It is an inordinately high price" that was paid, in the view of Rep. Robert N. Giaimo (D-Conn.), chairman of the House Budget Committee, who opposed the sugar plan. He added that support for a higher minimum wage was also at stake besides free food stamps, which the House approved previously: "They think they're going to get a quo for the quid."
Indeed, the final roll call of those supporting the sugar plan contains many names normally linked with the consumer movement; the Consumer Federation of America, citing higher prices, had urged its defeat.
The sugar amendment was included in the omnibus farm bill passed by the House. It was not part of the Senate version, so the administration can still try to have it eliminated in compromise negotiations between the two houses.
But one congressional source said that Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Herman Talmadge (D-Ga.) has indicated there is a good chance it will survive. Talmadge could not be reached.
Another source said tha presidential advisers will prepare a list of objections to the final farm bill and that, if the sugar price support plan stays in, it could bring a recommendation for a veto.
The issue was never whether sugar farmers should get help, just how and how much. The Carter administration would have supported a support price of 13.5 cents - the estimate of how much it costs to grow a pound of sugar. Farmers would have been entitled to federal payments when prices fellow below that level. Market prices would not have been affected.
Instead, the House amendment, put forth by Rep. Kika de la Garza (D-Tex.), calls for the government to support the price of sugar at 55 to 65 per cent of parity, a sliding index of the purchasing power a farmer obtains from a unit of produce. Parity for sugar is about 26 cents a pound: 55 per cent of partiy would be about 14.3 cents.
That would set a minimum market price for sugar, much as the government does for milk.
Richmond, generally considered a consumer advocate, said he didn't feel that 13.5 cents was enough to allow domestic sugar growers to stay in business. He said tht if the United States becomes dependent on foreign sugar it will be at the mercy of those nations, as he said it has been with coffee. "We've got to build up our own local indsutries whereever possible," he said.
"We know there is a crisis in farming," said Giaimo, who criticized the move as "rushing in." But, he said, "I don't think we should go overboard and send out a message to farmers to go ahead and plant you merry way and plant bigger and bigger crops because the government will bail you out."
One group that will apparently not get bailed out is the Hawaiian sugar industry. By the time the de la Garza amendment could take effect, if it survives, the 1977 sugar crop there will have been marketed. The administration's sugar plan would have covered that crop.
Beneficiaries include the corn refining industry, large corporations which make a highly sweet syrup that can be substituted for sugar in many uses. It becomes more attractive to industrial users as sugar prices rise.