Two major lobbying fights over agriculture have taken place between growers and users, with vastly different results.
In the sugar industry, growers have been successful holding the line against calls from bakers and candy makers to scrap the decades-old sugar program, in which the government influences the amount of sugar available in the U.S. and keeps prices “above comparable levels in the world market,” according to the Department of Agriculture. That’s achieved through mechanisms such as price supports and tariff-rate quotas.
But in dairy, farmers haven’t been as successful pushing through a market-stabilization provision in the dairy title that has been opposed by dairy processors.
So why have growers prevailed in one fight and not the other? For one, dairy farmers have been advocating for a new program, whereas the sugar program is well-established.
“You have to play offense as opposed to playing defense,” said Chris Galen, senior vice president of communications for the National Milk Producers Federation, which represents dairy farmers. “We’re trying to actually play offense and pass something that hasn’t been created before, and that becomes difficult politically, particularly in this climate of a divided government.”
Cory Martin, director of government relations for the American Bakers Association, agreed, adding that the sugar program is the main issue for the sugar growers, whereas bakers and candy makers lobby on many issues. “It’s more difficult to adopt a new program than to scale back a program that’s been in place for decades,” Martin said. “The growers have been around for decades, building up their coffers on this issue.”
In 2012, the sugar-cane and beet industry, via PACs and individuals, contributed about $3.5 million to House members, almost evenly split among 290 Republicans and Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
But while much attention has been paid to sugar’s money influence, Phillip Hayes, spokesman for the American Sugar Alliance, which represents sugar growers, says it’s “largely been a draw,” and that food processors have been expanding their PAC contributions and lobbying expenditures since the 2008 farm bill.
The argument from sugar growers that the program operates at no cost to the government has helped defend the program from repeal — although sugar users argue that costs are passed on to consumers.
“What this came down to is members of Congress recognizing that the policy has worked and is by far the cheapest policy we have in agriculture,” Hayes said. “The feeling is, if it isn’t broke, then why do we need to fix it?”
The sugar program has operated at no or little cost to taxpayers, but under the North American Free Trade Agreement, Mexico can send an unlimited amount of sugar to the United States. This year, Mexican sugar has overwhelmed the U.S. market, resulting in low prices and millions in government expenditures to help growers.
Sugar and dairy also gain different traction in the full House versus the House Agriculture Committee. Galen notes that the dairy market-stabilization provision was included in the committee-approved version of the farm bill, whereas the full House voted 291-135 to replace the provision with an amendment from Reps. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and David Scott, D-Ga., to eliminate production limits. That amendment had previously been defeated in the committee.
“The people at the committee level were with us, and those are the ones that are most familiar with the farm policy,” Galen said.
The International Dairy Foods Association, which represents dairy processors, is also a member of the Coalition for Sugar Reform, which includes candy makers.
“One of our goals, and one of the goals of the sugar processors, is to generate a vote outside of the Agriculture Committee, because the Agriculture Committee is biased to the farmers,” said Jerry Slominski, DFA senior vice president for legislative affairs.
Even with a floor vote, the House defeated an amendment to reform the sugar program. But the 206-221 vote was much closer than the House vote that removed the farmer-backed provision in the dairy title.
House leadership was also very vocal in its disapproval of the dairy provision; House Speaker John Boehner, who typically doesn’t cast floor votes, has described the dairy program as “Soviet-style” and voted for the Goodlatte-Scott amendment.
Indeed, the rhetorical argument against the dairy title that it causes interference in the market has traction in the Republican-controlled House. “On the Republican side, you’re being a little disingenuous to preach free market and then support something like supply management,” Slominski said.
But Slominski said they also received support from Democrats, and heavily lobbied Democrats on how the program could affect milk prices and hurt middle-income families.
And although some have drawn comparisons between the sugar program and proposed dairy title, the actual products can carry a different weight. “It’s one thing for the government to deliberately make the price of sugar high because it’s sugar; it’s quite another to make the price of dairy high, [when] the government recommends three low- and nonfat dairy servings a day,” Slominski said.