January 22, 2014

Remember the great Christmas tree tax scare? Now it's paper's turn

Critics had a lot of fun punching the lights out of a Christmas tree promotion program a few years ago. Now, the U.S. paper-products industry is embarking on the same idea. Where's the outrage?

Conservatives had a lot of fun punching the lights out of a Christmas tree promotion program a few years ago. It will be illuminating now to see whether a similar campaign is roused against a similar promotion program serving the U.S. paper and paper-products industry.

Or maybe all that "Christmas tree tax" fuss was simply cynical political gamesmanship, and not meant to be taken seriously.

Brief history lesson: The U.S. Christmas tree growers conceived of a promotion program in which they would assess themselves fees to pay for ads. It's a common idea, used for a variety of products including beef, cotton and dairy. These are industry self-help programs, but they are technically administered via the Agriculture Department.

Dubbed a "Christmas tree tax" by former Bush administration attorney David Addington, and mercilessly lampooned by Fox News, the industry funded and industry supported Christmas tree promotion program was quickly dropped by the Obama administration. Dismayed growers have been trying ever since to revive the program through the long-stalled farm bill.

Keep all this in mind in coming days, as we check for any public or political reaction to the rules published Wednesday for a Paper and Paper-Based Packaging Promotion, Research and Information Order.

The purpose of the program is to maintain and expand markets for paper and paper-based packaging. In recent years, the U.S. market has been hurting. Shipment of office papers, for instance, reportedly fell 20 percent between 2006 and 2010.

The program will be financed by an assessment on U.S. manufacturers and importers of paper and paper-based packaging and administered by a board of industry members. The assessment rate will initially be $0.35 per short ton.

Eighty five percent of industry members voted to support the program.

By the prior logic of Addington and Fox, this is an Obama administration "paper tax." Sound the alarms! But unlike the ill-fated Christmas tree program, with its subtle undertones of the putative "war on Christmas," the paper program deals with a pretty unmemorable product that lacks political resonance. Here's guessing it goes forward without a hitch.

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