Soda lobby gets its game on
HuffingtonPost has a piece up detailing the food lobby’s full court press over a federal soda/sweetener tax:
During the first 9 months of 2009, the industry groups stepped up their lobbying in Congress. They have spent more than $24 million on the issue of a national excise tax on sweetened beverages and on other legislative and regulatory issues, according to an examination of lobbying reports filed with the Senate Office of Public Records. The review shows that 21 companies and organizations reported that they lobbied specifically on the proposed tax on sugar-sweetened beverages — which among other things would include sodas, juice drinks, and chocolate milk.
About $5 million of the money was spent on a national advertising campaign aimed at Capitol Hill lawmakers and promoting a newly formed coalition called Americans Against Food Taxes . The group bills itself on its website as a coalition of “responsible individuals, financially-strapped families, [and] small and large businesses” but its 400-plus membership list is dominated by industry heavyweights such as Burger King Corporation, Coca Cola, Pepsico and Domino’s Pizza.
Sounds like they’re just getting started. This is par for the course with taxes on the federal level, you can’t even mention one without sending the affected industry’s lobbyists into a frenzy — and why we’re in such a revenue pickle generally. Yet, some insiders suggest that the beverage folks have an ace in the hole — “the sugar guys”:
Jon Doggett, an [National Corn Growers Association] spokesman, said other factions of the sugar lobby pushed hard on Congress, but didn’t describe their work on public filings as specific to the sweetened beverage tax. “They have kind of kept their heads down a little bit,” Doggett said. “Nobody plays politics better than the sugar guys.”
In other words, the sugar lobby, which is unique in the agricultural world for having maintained strict import quotas on foreign products despite living in a world devoted to “free trade,” has kept their work against the soda tax off their paperwork and thus out of public sight. But its invisibility doesn’t lessen its ferocity or, so far, its effectiveness.
And it certainly doesn’t help that, as HuffPo, myself, and the New York Times have observed, any attempt to enact a soda tax in the Senate Finance Committee runs up against the reality that the committee’s Chairman and Ranking Member are from Montana (sugar beet country) and Iowa (corn syrup country) respectively. But HuffPo’s Christine Spoler and Joseph Eaton (with the Center for Public Integrity) go on to point out that, in fact, farm states are way over-represented on the Senate Finance Committee generally — depending on how you count them more than half come from states with large agricultural interests that might not take kindly to food taxes of any type.
I remain struck by the shamelessness of the beverage lobby. In addition to their efforts on Capitol Hill, a representative for the notorious industry front group the Center for Consumer Freedom went before a meeting of the Obesity Society to declare that obesity was a personal matter that government had no role in addressing. Really:
Senior research analyst at CCF Justin Wilson said in the statement: “The public health community seems dead-set on ever more regulation of our lives. The push for taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages is just the latest example of the disdainful belief that when it comes to matters of personal choices, the regulators know best.
“Government taxation should not be a tool for social engineering. Nor should it be used to penalize individuals for their personal food choices.”
Nor, I suppose, should we “penalize” individuals for their personal liquor choice, their personal tobacco choice, or even their personal income choice for that matter. Libertarianism is the last refuge of the corporate flack — when big business starts screaming about “freedom,” it always means trouble ahead.
So will we get a soda tax? Well, betting against a tax making it through the Senate is a pretty safe wager. But perhaps Spoler and Eaton are right that the states will manage something — New York’s Gov. David Paterson apparently has revived his “proposed then dropped like a hot potato” soda tax bill. Nothing like dire financial straits to open your eyes to the dollars floating around in a can of Coke. But watch out, New York. “The sugar guys” are no doubt ready and waiting to take their show on the road.