The name of this game is sugar, but it could be castor oil -- a legislative remedy with a taste that appeals to few and an aroma that turns noses.
The House is scheduled to take up -- perhaps this week -- a bill increasing sugar price supports.
If the bill passes, it would leave American consumers paying at least an extra $1 per person per year for their sugar and probably that much more for sugary products such as soft drinks, ice cream and baked goods.
But the industry says it needs the price supports for survival -- and in particular for protection from cheap foreign sugar, which now accounts for about half of U.S. consumption.
That much is easily understood. But the perennial sugar bills in Congress are never so simple; they are as many-layered and intricate as wedding cakes. And this one -- the international sugar stabilization act of 1979 -- is a particularly high-calorie mix of clashing economic and political interests, more complex than most.
Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), who last year led a successful fight against a similar bill, is throwing up his hands in dismay this time around. The Carter administration was with him last time, but is against him now.
"Politics is the main reason this is being pushed," he said. "There is concern about the states with the biggest sugar production. No logic at all other than politics can explain this."
The administration supports the legislation, which will raise consumer prices and then sweeten the producers' take further with a direct payment financed from import duties. The White House describes the new bill as a compromise.
This issue is complex because the American sugar industry is more than just a small farmer growing cane in, say, Florida. It includes cane growers, small and large, on the mainland and in Hawaii; sugar beet farmers in a dozen or more states; farmers whose corn is refined to a sweetener that competes with sugar.
Each of those elements wants something different from Congress. The bill, written in large part by industry officials, attempts to strike a balance to help them all.
On the other side are sugar refiners; consumers and labor groups; and the food processing, soft drink and sweets industries, which consume three-fourths of U.S. sugar and which want no price increases. These last include some fairly-powerful companies -- Coca Cola, for example.
Basically, the bill would do three things:
Assure domestic producers a 15.8 cents per pound price support (it's now 15 cents), with yearly increments, to guarantee them a return on investments and keep them in business.
Give the cane and beet sugar growers an extra half-cent per pound in direct payments, to come from tariffs on lower-cost imported sugar.
Authorize U.S. participation in the International Sugar Agreement (ISA) of 1977, a compact of about 80 producer nations that seeks market stability by setting export quotas and establishing sugar reserves.
The genesis of this was the expiration in 1974 of a 40-year-old sugar quota program, which had regulated a steady supply through periods of surplus and scarcity.
When world prices neared record highs in 1974, Congress refused to continue the program. But by 1975 prices were dropping, foreign sugar came rushing into the United States and domestic producers argued that they were going out of business.
President Carter decided in 1977 to provide relief through agricultural income support programs rather than to restrict sugar imports. The battle over the type and size of supports became one of the most heated congressional episodes last year.
In the final hours of the 95th Congress, a delicately crafted compromise was shot down. Corn-state legislators in the House, displeased with the size of the direct payments to cane and beet growers, ganged up on the measure to help kill it.
This year's version is a little more palatable to them. Rep. Floyd J Fithian (D-Ind.), a leader of the corn bloc, said, "We are ready to accept it. . . . I'll say it's tolerable legislation, but it's also very fragile. If any one group flakes off, this bill is dead."
That cuts little ice with Metzenbaum in the Senate or House opponents of the bill, such as Reps. Margaret M. Heckler (R-Mass.) and Peter A. Peyser (D-N.Y.).
"I feel the bill is bad for every reason," Heckler said. "It is inflationary, it is special-interest protection without any justification. The large corporations, which control most of our production, will benefit most from this."
Making it worse, she said, are its ISA provisions, which she said would sanction export quotas giving Cuba special treatment to the tune of approximately $1 billion in world sales. Heckler said this Cuba angle "adds an absolutely shocking dimension to this bill."
Peyser, contending the ISA bonanza would help Cuba finance its overseas military operations, intends to propose an amendment to block U.S. participation in the agreement until Soviet troops are withdrawn from Cuba.
Supporters of the legislation, led by Agriculture Committee Chairman Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) and Ways and Means Chairman Al Ullman (D-Ore.), insist that the support program and ISA must be considered as one to make a global market strategy work.
But if there is agreement on that point, the two committees were split widely on other points of the legislation.
And, it is worth noting, there is dispute within the Carter administration as well about the need and impact of the bill, which the president is supporting.
When Carter's chief inflation fighter, Alfred Kahn, was grilled about the economic impact of the bill, he winced. Kahn asked that the committee record be marked to show "an embarrassed silence" on that one.