Bush fee proposals raise eyebrows


WASHINGTON -- Like other hard-core, tax-cutting Republicans, President Bush has long declared that the government should keep its hands away from the people's money -- whenever possible, at least.

So Bush caught some of his usual supporters off-guard this week by proposing a budget that asks some individuals and businesses to pony up $16 billion in additional fees to the government over five years.

The wide range of targets includes war veterans, visa applicants, poultry producers and drug companies.

Some conservatives were alarmed. They saw at least some of the fees as thinly disguised tax increases. And they warned that any such perception risks tainting the Republicans' image as guardians of the taxpayers' hard-earned money.

"I'd be more comfortable if they avoided anything that even smells like a tax," said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and a leading conservative strategist.

By proposing to raise fees, Norquist said, Bush might be sending a message to governors that it would be OK for them to do the same in their states.

"The Republican Party's No. 1 advantage in the world is public confidence that, when they go into that voting booth and vote for Republican state senators, as least you know they won't raise taxes," Norquist said.

"Anything that muddies that is a problem."

In the president's defense, administration officials say Bush has certainly proved himself to be dedicated to tax relief, having pushed for passage of his $1.3 trillion tax cut in 2001 and having proposed more deep tax cuts this year.

His budget, they explain, in many cases would simply extend the life of government fees that were set to expire.

For example, the budget would force coal companies to pay about $1.3 billion over five years -- money to help pay for the restoration of lands the companies destroyed by mining.

Those fees had been scheduled to end this year.

"This is nothing new," said Trent Duffy, a spokesman for the White House budget office.

Duffy said the use of fees "is a traditional, longstanding approach to providing specialized government services."

The fees that Bush has proposed would affect only a sliver of the population and would not alter the income taxes that Americans pay.

Still, the contrast is striking between the Bush who calls passionately for the government to let people and businesses hold on to their money and the Bush who wants the government to boost its share of that cash.

"Government spends a lot of money, but it doesn't build factories, it doesn't invest in companies or do the work that makes the economy go," Bush said in an economic address in Chicago last month.

"There is no better way to help our economy grow than to leave more money in the hands of the men and women who earned it."

In the $2.23 trillion budget that he unveiled Monday, the president suggested more than $2.1 billion in new or increased government fees next year. Over the next five years, the new or higher fees would total $16.7 billion.

Stephen Moore, president of the conservative Club for Growth, said that Bush, whose budget projects that the government would run a deficit exceeding $1 trillion over the next five years under his plan, is "scrounging around to save every penny he can."

Moore, another leading anti-tax advocate, said he makes a crucial distinction when it comes to government fees.

He suggested that some fees that people or businesses pay for a government service -- such as buying a stamp to send a letter or paying an entry fee at a national park -- are acceptable.

By contrast, he said, when the government imposes a regulation and then forces a company or person to pay for its enforcement, the fee is really a burdensome tax.

Moore and some other conservatives say the government would be unfairly forcing industries to pay more of the costs of regulating them.

An example, Moore said, is a new fee Bush has proposed that pharmaceutical companies would have to pay whenever the Food and Drug Administration reviews new drugs for animals.

"That is paying for the burden of being regulated by the government," he said. "That is a tax, not a user fee. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's a duck."

Some groups that would face the higher fees say they would not be bothered by them. A coalition of pharmaceutical companies that produce animal drugs, for example, negotiated the new FDA fees, hoping the new money would help the agency speed up the review process for their drugs.

And the fees in Bush's budget, which must be approved by Congress, are paltry compared with the tax cuts he advocates.

"The president's philosophy when it comes to tax policy," said Claire Buchan, a White House spokeswoman, "is best exemplified by looking at his record of reducing the income-tax burden on the American people."

Taxes are a serious matter in Bush's family.

The president's father famously broke his "no new taxes" pledge, infuriating many conservatives and contributing to his defeat in the 1992 presidential election.

The younger Bush, when campaigning in New Hampshire in 2000, suggested that he was as committed to tax relief as his father had been when the elder man took office.

"This is not only 'no new taxes,'" the candidate said proudly of his agenda. "This is 'Tax cuts, so help me God.'"

Even conservatives who question the new fees Bush has proposed note that the president has remained firmly committed to lowering federal income taxes and so has not broken his own vow never to dare raise taxes.

Yet the fees have already frustrated at least one group that traditionally supports Bush.

Some military veterans expressed frustration that the president has proposed a new $250 fee for some of them to enroll in government health-care plans.

The fee would affect only higher-income veterans who are not disabled. Still, Ray Sisk, commander in chief of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the U.S., said it would force veterans to pay a burdensome cost for a service that should be provided free of charge.

"As our nation stands on the edge of war with Iraq," Sisk said, "we must ask what kind of message this sends to our young men and women who may soon stand in harm's way, as well as to our former defenders in their time of need.

"They have earned and deserve the very best medical care system we can provide."

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad