Senators Wednesday spent a considerable amount of time hashing out differences regarding the federal sugar program on the Senate floor, ultimately reaching a 45-54 decision to leave the program as-is.
Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., Pat Toomey, R-Penn. and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., led the charge behind an amendment to repeal the federal sugar program, which they said subsidizes sugar producers too heavily and hurts American candy manufacturers. The three Senators previously introduced similar language in a stand-alone bill earlier this year.
"Currently sugar is the only commodity program that was not reformed in the committee-passed Farm Bill," Shaheen said. "But it's particularly puzzling that [the committee] did nothing to reform the sugar program."
The amendment pushes the sugar program back to pre-2008 policy, when Shaheen said legislative changes caused sugar prices to "soar to record highs twice the world price of sugar."
Currently, the sugar program in the U.S. limits imports to encourage higher prices for domestic sugar to combat subsidized sugar in exporting countries. However, Shaheen said while the policy is pushing prices up for farmer profit, it's also hurting consumers and manufacturing.
Her amendment to combat the issue would have ended restrictions on domestic supply and import quotas, and allow the USDA Secretary to modify import quotas as needed.
Protecting workers and consumers, Shaheen said, is the reason behind the amendment. But Sen. Al Franken., D-Minn., said Shaheen's amendment would kill the sugar industry, and lose those jobs to competitors. Letting sugar producers compete against subsidized countries, he said, would also be a detriment to the industry.
"I also heard someone argue that we should just let the free market work. But did you know the Mexican government is the largest exporter of sugar? That's not much of a free market," Franken said.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, R-N.D., opponent of the amendment, further noted that Shaheen's policy would push manufacturers to outside supplies because domestic sugar prices have been the roughly the same since the 1980s.
"What product can you say that's true?" Heitkamp said. "To claim the sugar program is breaking the backs of American consumers again is not a fair or accurate statement."
More to come
Senators discussed upcoming amendments to the Farm Bill that weren't introduced Wednesday, but will likely be up for vote in the future – a proposition to allow states to label foods containing genetically modified organisms and an amendment to reduce the crop insurance premium subsidy level by 15% for farmers with adjusted gross income of over $750,000.
The amendment to adjust crop insurance subsidy premiums was discussed by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who noted that the language would save $1 billion.
Durbin cited several examples of large-scale farmers, who he said can shoulder the loss of some taxpayer-funded crop insurance subsidies.
"We shouldn't ignore the obvious. For 4% of the farmers in America, they are doing quite well. And I think – Sen. Coburn agrees – that the federal subsidy in crop insurance to those farmers should be diminished some. Instead of 62% of the premium being paid by taxpayers for the richest farmers in America, it be 47% of the premium. That's pretty generous, is it not? "
Senators will continue considering amendments to the Farm Bill tomorrow.
At a glance: Here's a listing of amendments agreed to Wednesday.
Franken #992 – Improve access to grocery delivery for homebound senior and disabled persons.
Vitter #1056 – End SNAP eligibility for convicted violent rapists, pedophiles and murderers.
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