Larry Graham has one of the sweetest jobs in Washington.
As the top lobbyist for the National Confectioners Association, he’s the Candy Man on Capitol Hill.
But as the year’s most anticipated candy-related holiday approaches, Graham and the candy industry find themselves in crisis.
A mix of steep U.S. tariffs and federal price supports for sugar has forced Hershey, Nestle USA, Mars Inc. and other companies that make candy, chocolate and other treats in the United States to pay up to three times the worldwide price for their central ingredient.
The added cost has invited new competition from foreign candy makers, which can buy sugar at far cheaper prices overseas.
“We are losing thousands of jobs because more candy is being made outside of the country,” said Graham, a former Republican Congressional aide.
In all, foreign competition has cost the industry more than 7,000 jobs over the past five years, according to industry figures.
As a result, candy producers are pushing the Bush administration to help lower the cost of sugar by negotiating free trade agreements with countries in sugar-rich regions like Central America and Australia.
But candy makers face a powerful and politically connected foe: the sugar industry.
U.S. sugar growers represent a tiny share of the overall agricultural market, but the industry knows how to spread political sweeteners around town.
In the past three years, the sugar industry has contributed more than $4 million to Members of Congress, much of it going to lawmakers in Florida, Louisiana and other sugar-producing states.
Meanwhile, sugar growers fund several fact-finding trips a year in which lawmakers and Hill aides tour sugar facilities and learn first-hand about the industry, according to travel reports filed with Congress.
The strong relationships on Capitol Hill have helped sugar growers head off attempts by the candy industry to reduce sugar prices.
Most recently, the sugar industry has pressed the White House to exempt sugar from its trade agreements with Central America and Australia.
With just two paid lobbyists on staff, the Confectioners Association relies on its own lobbying treats to help tell its story.
“Our influence is our candy,” Graham said. “We don’t go to a meeting where we don’t bring some along.”
On Valentine’s Day last year, the trade association invited lawmakers and their aides on the Agriculture Committee to an invitation-only reception on Capitol Hill that featured an array of candy. This spring, they plan to team up with the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers Association to host a wine and chocolate party.
Another of the candy industry’s traditions has even worked its way into Senate lore.
In 1965, when Sen. George Murphy (Calif.) was appointed to fill out a brief term in the Senate, he decided to keep a collection of California raisins and treats on his desk by the chamber’s doorway to share with colleagues.
Because so many Senators passed by Murphy’s desk on their way in and out of the chamber, the desk soon became known as the “candy desk,” according to Senate Historian Richard Baker.
When Murphy left the Senate, he passed on the tradition to the Senator who inherited his desk in the chamber’s last row.
Its current occupant, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), keeps the desk stocked with Hershey’s Kisses, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Jolly Ranchers from Hershey Foods Corp. in Santorum’s home state.
“He loves being the candy Senator,” said Santorum spokesman Robert Traynham.
Though the presence of candy on the Senate floor may not win candy manufacturers all the support they need when votes are cast, the folks at the National Confectioners Association say that keeping that desk stocked is one of the things that keeps their jobs interesting.
“It’s nice to be able to represent an enjoyable and delicious product,” said Susan Smith, a spokeswoman for the lobby. “It’s a treat.”