To the chagrin of sugar growers and glee of consumer groups, things have gone sour on Capitol Hill for legislation that would raise the price of sugar.
White House rejection of compromise suggested by Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Foley (D-Wash.) has caused him to suspend markup of the bill and warn the administration there may be no bill at all.
In the Ways and Means trade subcommittee, which also has jurisdiction over the sugar bill, Rep. Charles Vanik (D-Ohio) is putting off further hearings until presidential inflation fighter Alfred Kahn testifies about the impact on consumers.Kahn has been reluctant to do that, possibly because of administration pressure.
Kahn has said previously that each penny added on in the sugar bill would cost the American public about $450 million to $500 million, but an administration official said Kahn is not eager to testify and "get kicked around on the point".
The administration might not care if there were no sugar bill, except for the fact that languishing in the Senate, as a hostage to sugar legislation, is an international sugar agreement which the United instigated, negotiated and pressed other sugar-growing nations into signing. It would cause the adminstration some ambarrassment if Congress refused to ratify it.
According to an adminstration official, most of the help the president wants to give domestic sugar producers can be provided administratively. That may be necessary if the price of sugar goes much lower.
For the moment, all players in the complicated game of sugar legislation have more or less walked away from the board. However, the sugar interests, divided among themselves, are expected to meet informally today to try to work something out.
U.S. growers desperately want legislation because there is a glut of sugar on the world market, where it currently sells at about 8.5 cents a pound. That price, the U.S. growers say, would be so far below the cost of domestic production it would drive them out of business and leave the nation depending of foreign sugar the way it now depends on foreign oil.
That they want import fees to raise the price of foreign sugar is about all the Hawaii, Florida, Louisana and Idaho cane and beet producers and their processors agree upon.
The administration, after long internal debate, has agreed to a three year bill providing for import fees raising the price to about 15.8 cents a pound plus a half-cent payment to processors and growers, for a total of 16.3 cents a pound in 1979. Legislation setting the price at about 15 cents expires this year.
Though Foley, Ways and Means Chairman Al Ullman (D-Ore.) and Sen. Russell Long (D-La.) have introduced legislation calling for a total of 16.6 cents per pound, all pretty much agree that the administration level is where the bill will have to come out to avoid a veto.
The hangup is in the half-cent payment to processors and growers. Hawaii and Florida, where large companies are the growers, want no limit on what can be paid to a single producer. But a limit somewhere around $50,000 to a single grower is almost a sure bet to pass the House, which already has done this on other crop legislation.
On the other hand, the corn sweetener industry doesn't like the fact that 40 percent of the payments would go to processors, which they say compete with their own processing.
And Idaho and Louisiana growers insist on payments not only to themselves but to the processors. Without the processors, they argue, growers have no place to ship their sugar economically and the growers go out of business.
Foley tried to get the administration to abandon the special payment in the last two years of the bill and instead simply raise the market price objective to 16.05 cents per pound plus a inflation adjustment, making the price about 17.2 cents in 1980 and 18.4 cents in 1981.
No, said the administration, 15.8 cents is as high as it will go on the market price. The reason, an administration official said, is that a higher market price would be passed on to the consumer, and would have to be given to all producers instead of to a targeted number.
In addition labor, which wants some minimum wage provisions in the bill for sugar workers, is not happy with the present language.
Negotiation the sugar bill is "like negotiating the Middle East peace teaty," Foley said.
Vanik is angry at the administration for not allowing inflation fighter Kahn or consumer affairs adviser Easther Peterson to testify on the costs to the consumer. In any case, Vanik said his "political instincts" tell him that even the administration version of the bill might not pass the House. CAPTION: Picture, REP. TOM FOLEY. . . "like negotiating the peace treaty"