The irony of it was too great to go unnoticed, even by congressmen who've seen such juxtapositions many times before.
As Council on Wage and Price Stability Director Barry Bosworth, testifying on food prices and inflation at hearings before the House Agriculture consumer subcommittee, was reassuring members that "the worst seems behind us," nest door the full Agriculture Committee was preparing to consider legislation that would raise price supports for American sugar produces by nearly 3 cents a pound. The increase could add more than $700 million to consumer food costs.
After listening to Bosworth, the Carter administration's designated hitter on controlling inflation. Rep. Steve Symms (R-Idaho), said loudly as he walked out the door, "I'm going to leave now 'cause I have to go raise the price of sugar."
Although the full committee got no farther than considering how to proceed on the sugar bills, several witnesses before the consumer subcommittee, including Bosworth, had some advice.
Sugar and sweet make up "the third most rapidly rising food category this year." Bosworth said, "These price levels are a direct result of a domestic price support program which holds the price of sugar at twice the world price . . . It is exacerbate this problem by enacting a new sugar program which would be even more inflationary."
Howard W. Hjort, the Agriculture Department's chief economist, said, "Each 1 cent increase in the domestic support price for sugar adds at least $300 million to sugar users' expenditures." Kathleen O'Reillu, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America, said an increase to a price support level of 17 cents "would add a full percentage point to the consumer price index" and said her group vigorously opposes it.
A glut of sugar has brought world sugar prices down to the 6 to 7 cents a pound range, and American sugar producers want both import quotas and a price support increase to 17 cents a pound from the current support price of about 13 cents a pound. Sugar producers insist they need the increase to break even. Without it, they say, the nation will lose its sugar cane and beet farmers and have to rely solely on foreign imports.
The administration has its own plan. It would scrap the current price support program and substitute a target price of 14.4 cents a pound. The plan would include authority to impose import quotas if duties fail to bring prices high enough but would not mandate quotas as the committee bill would.
The administration also wants the Senate to ratify an International Sugar Agreement designed to keep world sugar prices within a range of 11 to 21 cents a pound. But ratification of the agreement is up to a subcommittee headed by Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho), who with Rep. Kiki de la Garza (D-Tex.), is coauthor of the 17 cents a pound, proposal.
The sugar support program expires this year and Church wants domestic sugar prices secured before the agreement is ratified.
But Hjort said President Carter would veto a 17-cent bill as incompatible with the agreement and that mandatory import quotas would revive protechtionist fears around the world.
Bosworth bluntly told the subcommittee the country would be better off without quotas on sugar, beef and other products in its fight against inflation.
He blamed rising food prices on cold weather, record rainfall in Califronia which ruined fruit and vegetable crops, and unexpected developments in meat production.
While prices for all goods and services have been rising at an annual rate at between 9 and 10 percent, prices for food have been rising at an annual rate of 17 percent. However, the remainder of the year will see a "significant deceleration in the rate of food price increases," Bosworth said, adding up to about a 10 percent increase for the whole year.
Supplies at the farm level caused the volatility of food prices so far, but labor and production increases will keep prices going up, though more slowly, the rest of the year, Bosworth said.