WASHINGTON — Is the Obama administration really taxing Christmas trees? No, but the White House said Wednesday it was reversing its decision to approve an industry-sponsored Christmas tree promotion program after conservatives accused the Agriculture Department of spoiling Christmas with a new tree tax.
The program – similar to familiar industry campaigns like "Got Milk?" "Beef: It's What's For Dinner" and "The Incredible Edible Egg" – would have been fully funded by fees on the industry at 15 cents per Christmas tree sold. The industry had asked the USDA to set up the program.
Conservative critics said the costs could eventually be passed on to consumers. The National Christmas Tree Association said it wouldn't have an impact on the price consumers pay for their trees.
White House spokesman Matt Lehrich said the USDA would delay the program, but defended it, saying it was not a tax.
"I can tell you unequivocally that the Obama administration is not taxing Christmas trees," Lehrich said. "What's being talked about here is an industry group deciding to impose fees on itself to fund a promotional campaign."
That said, Lehrich added, "USDA is going to delay implementation and revisit this action."
USDA promotion and research boards are common, used by at least 18 other agricultural commodities. The Christmas tree industry petitioned to set up its own promotional program after years of concern about lost market share to the artificial Christmas tree industry. The National Christmas Tree Association said a majority of growers favored the petition.
Industries get the Agriculture Department involved to make sure the effort to promote their product is fair and unified. If the USDA eventually approves it, a board of industry representatives will make decisions on how to promote and research Christmas trees.
Conservative critics were unbowed. David Addington, a former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney and now a vice president at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said in a post on the think tank's website that the money coming into the federal government constitutes a tax.
"The American Christmas tree has a great image that doesn't need any help from the government," Addington said.
Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., piled on.
"This new tax is a smack in the face to each and every American who celebrates Christmas, and may be the best example to date of President Obama's obsession with taxing and regulating hard-working American families," he said.