It is a cautionary tale, a story of a helpful if bloodless bureaucracy being played by masterful wordsmiths with a anti-government agenda.

Yes, a funny thing happened on the way to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s promotion program for the fresh Christmas tree industry. 

The Fox News version of the story was headlined “Under Fire, Obama Delays Christmas Tree Tax.” 

From the headline, one could surmise that President Obama had backed off an initial decision to sock it to America in the season of giving. 

Ready to drop a new 15-cent per tree tax on Americans like a lump of coal in the Christmas stocking, Obama was thwarted by right-thinking Americans.

The gall of that man, seriously! 

What was Obama planning to fund with the Christmas tree tax? Conservatives could only assume the revenues would fund excesses such as the First Family vacation in Hawaii or the French Riviera.

The reality is different, of course. 

Closer to the truth is this headline from “Michigan Christmas tree growers left hanging as feds pull the plug on long-awaited program to promote real trees.” 

From the story, a perplexed industry leader said:

“Agriculture tends to be conservative as a whole, and vote Republican,” said Marsha Gray, executive director of the Michigan Christmas Tree Association. Many of those who heard it all unfold on radio pod casts from their tractors, she said, “I’m sure growers (are) thinking ‘I can’t believe Rush Limbaugh just threw us under the bus.’”

Yes, a solid majority of U.S. fresh Christmas tree growers wanted a USDA promotion order.

They were trying for several years to set up such a promotion plan to enhance the image and appeal of fresh-cut trees. 

They had been motivated to promote the benefits of real trees, they say, because of declining market share caused by inroads by made-in-China artificial trees.

Market drop

According to data supplied by proponents of the promotion order, the market share for fresh Christmas trees in the U.S. from 1965 to 2008 declined by 6%. In comparison, the market share of artificial trees has increased zoomed up 655% in the same period.

Sales of fresh Christmas trees dropped from 37 million trees in 1991 to just 22 million trees in 2002. A voluntary promotion effort increased demand, but fizzled when funds dried up after about three years.

“The decline in revenue is attributable to the voluntary nature of these programs,” the USDA said.

“Therefore, the proponents have determined that they need a mechanism that would be sustainable over time. They believe that a national Christmas tree research and promotion program would accomplish this goal,” according to the Nov. 8 Federal Register

Growers are naturally chapped because their efforts to work together to promote fresh Christmas trees (domestic and imported) and fend off cheap Chinese artificial tree imports are somehow being portrayed as a wacky liberal agenda. 

Misinformation killed the Christmas tree promotion order. For example, some said the promotion order would hurt smaller producers, but producers and importers who marketed under 500 trees would have been exempt under the program. 

David Addington of the Heritage Foundation set the stage for the Obama retreat. 
In his column headlined “Obama Couldn’t Wait: His New Christmas Tree Tax” on Nov. 8, Addington skewered President Obama and paid scant attention to the fact that growers, not the president, wanted the 15-cent assessment.

Here is one barb:

“The economy is barely growing, and 9% of the American people have no jobs. Is a new tax on Christmas trees the best President Obama can do? And, by the way, the American Christmas tree has a great image that doesn’t need any help from the government.”

GOP lawmakers piled on. While Christmas tree growers were out in the field tending their crop and hoping for better times and new promotion efforts, the Web exploded. 

Google “Christmas tree tax” and you will find 132 million search results.

USDA backed off on Nov. 14 in a Federal Register notice:

“On November 8, 2011, a final rule was published in the Federal Register ... establishing an industry-funded promotion, research, and information program for fresh cut Christmas trees, effective November 9, 2011. Due to recent events, the regulations are stayed in order to provide all interested persons, including the Christmas tree industry and the general public, an opportunity to become more familiar with the program.”

Can this “wait-and-see” approach work? Of course not. It is out of the question in this political environment. There is no way the “Christmas tree tax” will be revived during the 2012 election cycle.

I’m disappointed USDA career officials weren’t able to turn back the White House impulse to stand down and vacate support for the promotion program. 

After all, marketers of avocados, mangoes, potatoes and many other crops rely on those USDA promotion programs.   

And if the fruit and vegetable industry ever decides it needs and wants a national generic promotion program — and it should, in my view — it should demand assurance the USDA and the White House can find their backbone to fend off baseless political attacks.