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Senate keeps USDA sugar program

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) threaded a new farm bill through another day of amendments on the floor of the Senate Wednesday, succeeding in preventing its food stamp program from being turned into a program run by the states with block grants doled out by USDA.

And she kept the bipartisan farm bill's sugar program intact, even though the Senate's majority whip, Dick Durbin of Illinois, was among Democrats supporting an amendment by Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) to weaken the program.

Durbin, along with Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) is also backing an amendment to lower crop insurance premium subsidies by 15 percentage points for farmers with adjusted gross income above $750,000. That amendment didn't come up for a vote Wednesday. It, and an amendment to clarify the authority of states to require labeling of genetically modified food ingredients, backed by Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders, were among more than 100 farm bill changes waiting for a vote. That may sound like a lot standing in the way of Stabenow's goal of finishing debate by Friday. But a year ago, the Senate had more than 300 amendments pending before voting was limited to 74.

Senators soundly rejected the food stamp amendment, sponsored by Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), by a vote of 36 for to 60 against. The sugar program, which relies on a system of tariffs and price support loans, survived by a narrower vote of 45 votes for Shaneen's amendment, 54 against.

Under Inhofe's amendment, states would need to have work requirements, mandatory drug testing, and proof of citizenship or legal residency for food stamp recipients before getting USDA block grants. Funding for food stamp grants would range from $45.5 billion to $54.1 billion a year. Inhofe said that complaints about the food stamp program come up often from his constituents.

Stabenow opposed it, pointing out that the independent, nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office is already projecting lower spending on food stamps, called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. CBO expects SNAP spending to peak in the next (2014) fiscal year at around $80 billion, but spending would still be $73 billion by 2022, far above the levels Inhofe would provide.

"I am deeply concerned about the amendment. I do not support it. I think it takes us in the wrong direction," Stabenow said before the vote.

The amendment on the sugar support program, which the CBO says costs taxpayers nothing, drew supporters and opponents to the floor.

"Let's be clear. Eliminating or weakening the sugar program is going to kill rural jobs in America," said Senator Al Franken (D-MN), whose state is a major sugar beet producer.

Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), from the other side of the sugar-growing Red River Valley,  put a number on that -- 142,000 jobs from sugar in 22 states. And the USDA program isn't making sugar expensive, she said. "Sugar is the exact price it was in 1985."

Yet candy companies and other food processors are moving to nations like Canada that don't have barriers to sugar imports, said Senator Dan Coats (R-IN).

And even though taxpayers don't pay directly, the program hits the poor the hardest with higher costs for sugar, said Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA).

"It just so happens there are some places in the world that can grow sugar cheaper than we can," Toomey said.

"We subsidize a handful of wealthy sugar growers at the expense of everybody else in America," he said.

After the vote, Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA), thanked senators for keeping sugarcane and sugar beet production in the U.S.

"This production represents a huge part of our state's economy," she said. Louisiana has over 420,000 acres of sugarcane, and last year its mills produced 1.6 million tons of raw sugar.

Sugar represents 1% of the cost of cake, 2% of the cost of a candy bar, and 5% of the cost of hard candy, she said.

Tomorrow the Senate starts out with debate on Sanders' amendment on labeling genetically modified ingredients in food.

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