WASHINGTON — Republican heat led the Obama administration Wednesday to suspend plans for a Christmas tree-promotion program that growers long had sought.
After being alternately bashed and mocked by Fox News and Republican lawmakers for the alleged "Christmas tree tax," administration officials cried uncle; at least for the time being. They pulled the industry-crafted proposal less than 24 hours after giving it a green light.
"I can tell you unequivocally that the Obama administration is not taxing Christmas trees," White House spokesman Matt Lehrich said late Wednesday. "That said, the (Agriculture Department) is going to delay implementation and revisit this action."
The White House didn't indicate when it might revive the nascent Christmas Tree Promotion, Research and Information Order, which was first proposed during the George W. Bush administration.
As drafted by the tree industry, the federal program would charge growers and importers 15 cents per tree. An estimated $2 million would be collected, primarily to pay for advertising and marketing of live Christmas trees.
Critics called it a tax. Tree growers say the critics don't know what they're talking about.
"They're misinformed," Oregon tree farm operator Betty Malone said in an interview late Wednesday. "I'm sorry that they don't understand how this program works."
The president of a group called Christmas Tree Promotion Now, Malone has joined with other tree growers over the past three and a half years to push for the tree marketing program.
It would be a smaller version of programs such as the $80 million-a-year beef promotion order, imposed during the Reagan administration, or the $8 million-a-year peanut promotion order, imposed during the Bush administration.
All told, the U.S. Agriculture Department recognizes some 18 research and promotion programs that cover everything from blueberries, cotton and dairy products to popcorn, pork and soybeans. They've been authorized under both Democratic and Republican administrations.
In addition, the Agriculture Department recognizes more than 20 marketing orders that cover fruits and vegetables such as dates and olives. These marketing orders similarly can assess industry fees to pay for advertising.
"We need an industrywide effort to help all growers compete with the fake tree industry," Blake Rafeld, a tree grower in Ashland County, Ohio, told the Agriculture Department earlier this year during a public comment period. "A vibrant market for real Christmas trees will keep small farms like mine alive."
Fresh-tree sales declined overall from 37 million in 1991 to 31 million in 2007, according to the Agriculture Department. Artificial tree sales, meanwhile, nearly doubled to 17.4 million from 2003 to 2007, prompting considerable industry interest in new promotion efforts.
Of the 565 comments submitted to the Agriculture Department, 398 supported the proposal, 147 were opposed and the remainder fell into other categories. Until Wednesday, though, the proposal largely had flown under the public radar.
A McClatchy story about the new promotion program that was posted Tuesday afternoon was followed that night by a critical blog post from Heritage Foundation scholar David Addington, formerly Vice President Dick Cheney's legal counsel and chief of staff.
Fox News picked up the yarn, and blogs and Twitter were ablaze Wednesday with critical comments.
"The administration is once again challenging American liberty and now defaming the real meaning and spirit of Christmas," Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., said in a statement.
By late afternoon, the White House had buckled.
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