Take for example, a proposed $5 fee for airline passengers that was included in both President Obama's budget proposal and the House Republicans' spending plan for FY2014.
Under current law, airline passengers already pay a $2.50 Transportation Security Administration fee every time they board a plane, up to a maximum of $5 per trip. The White House has proposed a $5 flat charge for each one-way trip, that would increase by 50 cents every year until 2019, when it would cap out at $7.50. The Office of Management and Budget estimates that such a change would bring in an additional $25.9 billion over 10 years, which would be split to cover costs for the TSA and potentially reduce the deficit by $18 billion.
That's where the plan earns criticism from tax-fairness groups. User fees are intended to take funds from the beneficiaries of a specific service and use the money to pay for that service. The money taken from airline customers and put into the general fund may not necessarily benefit the frequent fliers that paid for it. That's what Taxpayers for Common Sense Vice President Steve Ellis calls a "gimmick."
"When you start generating revenue from these and putting it somewhere else, it becomes a lot more like a tax," Ellis said.
Lobbyists for the aviation industry have pushed back hard on the proposal, arguing that even the reinvestment in TSA funding does not qualify the charge as a user fee. The fee benefits a federal program, they argue, while potentially costing them customers. "America's airports think that aviation is a national defense function and it should be funded as such," said George Kelemen, a spokesperson for Airports Council International, North America.
Other proposed user fees would impact much smaller groups of Americans. For example, one proposal would increase the cost of duck stamps by $10, to $25 from $15. Hunters are required to buy the stamps annually in order to hunt migratory waterfowl, and a majority of the funds are used as part of conservation efforts. The cost of the stamps has remained unchanged since 1991 and the White House estimates that a $10 increase would reduce the deficit by $14 million per year.
Though user fees in general are still on the table, Democrats argue that some of the charges — particularly the TSA fee — would unfairly burden middle-class Americans.
Democrats are instead pushing revenue proposals that target special interests and wealthy individuals, including the owners of the nation's more than 11,000 private jets. Democrats released a hit list of potential tax loopholes they would like to close earlier this month, which include ending special tax deductions for the owners of corporate jets, yachts, and vacation homes, as well as eliminating a loophole that allows businesses to deduct expenses for moving a plant overseas.