WHEN MOST people think of discrimination in the United States, they correctly think of its victims as members of racial minorities, or women, or people with disabilities. The American Sugar Alliance, however, applies the concept more broadly than that, to encompass even large-scale cane growers. Or so it appears from the advertising campaign the lobbying group has just launched, which casts this class of business operators among the marginalized. A full-page ad in last Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal feature d a picture of two Louisiana sugar planters and the words: “Excluding us from loans available to other crops isn’t ‘modest reform,’ it’s discriminatory. Don’t cut sugar farmers out of the Farm Bill. Oppose harmful amendments.”
What’s really going on here? As it does every half-decade or so, the House of Representatives is debating the legislative monstrosity known as the farm bill, a compendium of subsidies for commodity producers whose redeeming feature is that most of it, in dollar terms, supports separate nutritional programs for the poor. (These seemingly unrelated matters get bundled in one bill because of a political bargain between the representatives of urban consumers and rural producers, but that’s another story.) And once again, reformers are targeting the mix of import controls, price targets and other market interventions that essentially try to guarantee profitability for cane growers in the Deep South and sugar-beet producers in the Great Plains.
The big selling point of the sugar program is that it corrects for other countries’ market manipulations and doesn’t cost taxpayers a dime. The latter point is mostly true — but only because the program’s impact takes the form of higher prices, which means fewer jobs in sugar-using industries in the United States and bigger grocery bills for consumers. There is no free candy bar. However, in fiscal 2013, the sugar program did incur a $280 million cost to the government; prices for sugar fell below the “support price” to which government-guaranteed sugar loans were pegged. The Agriculture Department ended up with the collateral: tons and tons of sugar that it had to sell at a loss.
Bipartisan reform legislation sponsored by Reps. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) and Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.), which is about to be introduced as an amendment to the farm bill when it reaches the House floor next week, would not repeal this wasteful program. The current version of the legislation would limit it, in particular by requiring the sugar industry to repay the government if and when the loan program operates at a loss. This is what the American Sugar Alliance considers “discriminatory,” because other commodities, such as cotton and corn, would not face a similar condition on their loans. Note: These arguments are being floated in the context of a farm bill that may impose tighter work requirements for poor people to get Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.
In the crazy farm-bill world of guaranteed benefits for agribusiness — sorry, a safety net for farmers — this thinking makes a perverse sort of sense, we admit. In all other ways, the notion that every agribusiness sector has a right to the same taxpayer-backed aid is pretty much as grotesque as the sugar program itself.