Sour vote on sugar

June 21, 2012 • Editorial

The U.S. Senate last week narrowly missed an opportunity to make progress in restoring fiscal sanity to Washington.

By a 50-46 vote, the Senate defeated an amendment to the farm bill that would have phased out price supports and quotes to the sugar industry.

The federal government has imposed controls on the domestic sugar market for at least 80 years, and the modern structure of statist sweeteners was implemented in 1981. Uncle Sam guarantees a minimum price for domestic sugar through price supports (maintained through a loan system), restrictions on imported sugar and quotas on domestic production. In short, Washington ensures that the price of sugar remains relatively high.

Naturally, that has a negative impact on consumers and businesses that rely on sugar for their [auth] products. They all pay a higher price than what the open market would bear — about $1.9 billion more annually, according to The Government Accountability Office. In effect, they are being forced to subsidize sugar manufacturers who are protected from competition.

It’s not like the sugar growers are a bunch of Ma and Pa Kettles eking out a living. The GAO found that 42 percent of all sugar subsidies go to just 1 percent of sugar growers, most of them large, profitable companies.

That leads us to another deleterious effect of sugar policy: its impact on the environment. The artificially high sugar prices have encouraged expanded production in the Everglades, which has resulted in draining wetlands, damaging them with fertilizer runoff, and destroying the natural habitats of several species.

But hey, otherwise it’s a great program!

These facts haven’t changed in years, yet Big Sugar has been impervious to logic and common sense. Last week, it survived yet another attempt to remove an antiquated and unnecessary, corporatist program that reeks of centrally planned economics and which forces others to pay for it.

It’s disappointing, though not surprising, that Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., voted for the status quo. That’s what he’s always done. He was joined by 31 other Democrats.

The real eye-opener, though, was the “yea” vote cast by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. He has wowed tea party conservatives with his inspiring rhetoric on changing the culture in Washington and reigning in exactly this kind of lumbering, big government stupidity. Yet, when faced with an opportunity to put his money where his mouth is, he chose parochial politics over principle.

Sugar is by no means the only example of misguided agricultural policy. The Senate is debating a new five-year farm bill that includes subsidies, price supports, trade restrictions, etc. for such crops as soybeans, peanuts, corn and rice. Supporters are touting that the entire bill would reduce spending $23.6 billion over the coming decade.

Talk about peanuts.

The entire framework of crop regulation should be scrapped. Fat chance of that happening, though. Rubio’s vote on the sugar amendment shows why it is so very difficult to make real change in Washington.

Guest Editorial

The Panama City News Herald

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