Outside Influences

A Sweet Victory for Collin Peterson

Citing his defense of food stamps, Peterson rallied fellow Democrats to oppose a change to the sugar program that’s vital to his district.

A field of sugar beets near Longmont, Colo., in 2009
AP Photo/Ed Andrieski
May 22, 2018, 8 p.m.

Much has been made of the House’s failure last week to pass the farm bill, but the real long-term story for agriculture is the connection between House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson’s opposition to the bill over its food-stamp provisions and the huge Democratic vote that helped stop an amendment to make changes to the sugar program.

The House was considering a farm bill that had passed the Agriculture panel with only Republican votes because Democrats had so vigorously opposed the GOP plan to impose stricter work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—food stamps—and to make qualifying for the program more difficult.

Peterson is one of the House’s most conservative Democrats and votes with Republicans more frequently than his leadership likes. But he opposed the SNAP changes with extraordinary vigor because, he says, the provisions requiring people to report monthly on their incomes, utility bills, and work habits amount to harassment that will lead hungry people to drop out of the program. The GOP plan to use savings from the resulting decrease in participants to fund a work-training program wouldn’t provide enough money to be effective, he said.

Peterson represents a western Minnesota district that produces more beet sugar than any other district in the country. Peterson’s farmers are deeply committed to the sugar program, which establishes a floor price on sugar that requires industrial-scale sweetener users to pay higher prices for sugar than users in other countries have to pay. The Agriculture Department is required to operate the program, which also controls imports, at no cost to taxpayers except under extraordinary circumstances.

The Sweetener Users Association, which represents candy companies and other big buyers of sugar, has long criticized the program, but it has failed in past farm bills to make many changes.

This year the sweetener users attracted more allies, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and mounted a huge campaign, including advertising for a bill sponsored by Republican Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina and Democratic Rep. Danny Davis of Illinois to make changes to reduce the price of sugar. Foxx and her allies argued that the sugar program has cost U.S. manufacturing jobs because the price of a key ingredient was too high. The American Sugar Alliance, which represents the beet and cane growers, mounted a vigorous defense of the program.

The two sides seemed equally matched in their campaigns, but when the House voted on the amendment it got fewer votes than a similar measure in 2013.

A total of 278 House members voted against the sugar-reform amendment and only 137 voted for it, compared to 221 against the 2013 amendment and 206 in favor of it.

Of the votes against the sugar amendment this year, 132 came from Republicans and 146 came from Democrats. Only 69 Democrats had voted against it in 2013.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, who had opposed the amendment on the grounds that it might lead to votes against other commodity programs, particularly cotton, told reporters that House Speaker Paul Ryan had rallied Republican votes in opposition. But Conaway also shook Peterson’s hand and thanked him for the Democratic votes. Peterson said it was the first time he and Conaway had spoken in five weeks.

Why did Democrats, many from urban areas, vote against changing the sugar program? Peterson had made a rare visit to a Democratic whip meeting and made the case that he needed his colleagues’ votes against the sugar amendment because his effort to protect SNAP was unpopular in his rural, Republican-leaning district. According to an attendee at that meeting, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, who represents the Hudson Valley of New York, gave an impassioned speech saying that Peterson had been a true party stalwart on SNAP and deserved the caucus’s support.

Peterson joined all Democrats and 30 Republicans in voting against the farm bill. House leaders now say they will bring the bill back up after the chamber votes on an immigration measure on June 22. But it will be safely without a sugar amendment.

After the debate ended, Peterson told reporters that he has now proven he really is a Democrat and that he has never been more popular in his caucus. Peterson also said he can tell the farmers in his district that his stand on food stamps “helped us defeat the sugar amendment.”

His next job, he said, is to make sure the Senate doesn’t “cave in” on SNAP work requirements if the bill gets to conference. He can certainly be counted on to defend the sugar program too.

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