Congress Must Axe Christmas Tree Tax

December 23, 2019

As stressed-out workers, frantic parents, and antsy schoolkids mark the days until Christmas, the race is on to make sure everything is ready for Santa Claus. Even before setting out the cookies and putting the final bows on presents, the all-important Christmas tree must be brought home from one of America’s thousands of nurseries. These farms haven’t had an easy decade—as planters are trying to play catch-up to the soaring demand for trees. But there’s a bushel of problems, including an “agricultural marketing” program implemented in 2015 that imposes a 15-cent tax on Christmas trees. This tax is tacked onto a slew of other Scroogey federal regulations. Federal bureaucrats and meddlesome industry groups must stop playing Grinch and prune their policies responsibly.

Ask most Americans to conjure up an image of Christmas and they will describe a tall, handsomely-decorated tree stocked with presents underneath. My people have tried to piggyback off the concept with Hanukkah bushes, but the concept has not taken off (much to the dismay of Judaica shops everywhere). Imitation and flattery aside, some lawmakers, bureaucrats, and industry heads are concerned that… Christmas trees aren’t marketed enough. That bizarre concern was the impetus behind a 2011 Obama administration rule authorizing a 15-cent per Christmas tree fee with proceeds slated for a government-backed promotion “enterprise” (read: slush fund). Unsurprisingly, the tax proved to be deeply unpopular and implementation (on farmers harvesting or importing more than 500 Christmas trees annually) was delayed until 2015.

Since attaching the tax, Christmas tree farms have hardly branched out their marketing efforts. Artificial trees may have grown in popularity over the past twenty years, but natural tree sales have remained steady since at least 2004. In fact, the real problem is that growers have less supply than Christmas tree shoppers are demanding. According to National Christmas Tree Association seasonal spokesman Doug Hundley, “In 2008 and 2009, we had the recession, which cut back on sales and made it [tree sales] worse. When tree growers can’t cut the trees, they don’t have the space to plant more.” And since it takes 8 to 10 years to grow a tree, the result is fewer trees available for the inevitable post-recession surge in demand. But this hasn’t stopped large growers from advocating for the Christmas tree tax, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regularly allows industry-wide votes to determine the future of the fee. USDA’s 2019 referendum resulted in 55 percent of growers voting for a continuation of the tax and imposing the fee on the dissenting (mostly smaller) 45 percent of farmers.

Normally, a 15-cent per tree fee wouldn’t be all that big a deal. But the USDA’s bushy boondoggle is just the tip of the iceberg for an industry that has had to deal with non-stop taxation and regulation. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has been having a field day regulating any and all festive lights under Santa’s sleigh, despite little evidence of continued hazard. Foundation for Economic Education contributor Elizabeth Hayes notes:

The regulations cover everything from Christmas tree lights to various light-up sculptures and animated lawn figures. These regulations are meant to reduce the number of injuries and deaths caused by malfunctioning Christmas lights—a noble cause. However, the agency also noted that the number of deaths caused by Christmas lights has been on a steady decline and is at an all-time low.

And since Christmas lights are part-and-parcel of any respectable tree, increasing decoration prices is just another twig in the face to tree farmers across the country.

So, it appears the War on Christmas is real, just not the culture war that has been portrayed in the media.  Policymakers should focus on how to make Christmas time easier for millions of Americans, instead of figuring out how to truncate the Christmas-tree industry. Just as Scrooge and the Grinch found peace in being kind and helpful, so too will USDA bureaucrats and over-zealous trade groups.

Ross Marchand is a Catalyst Policy Fellow and the director of policy for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance. He focuses on a range of issues, ranging from health-care reform to internet regulation to Postal Service-related issues. Ross is an alumnus of the Mercatus Center MA Fellowship at George Mason University, where he received his MA in economics in 2016. He has interned for the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council, analyzing and blogging on a variety of public policy issues.
Catalyst articles by Ross Marchand