When it set out to cut the budget last spring, a confident Reagan administration declared that a fundamental principle would be to make groups that get federal benefits pay for them.
Boat owners would be charged for the protection of the Coast Guard, private airplane owners for guidance by federal air traffic controllers.
The concept neatly fit free-market economics and functioned as well to blunt the charge that the Reagan budget cuts fell on the poor. The user fees would fall on people well-off enough to own power boats and private planes; they quickly became known in Congress as the Learjet tax and the yachtsman's fee.
But with only minor exceptions, the fee idea has fallen flat on its face. On the broader cuts it proposed in social programs the administration was able to win 90 percent of what it asked. But the fee proposals brought out influential single-minded interest groups of a different kind.
Not only is the administration's proposed user fee on power boats dead in the water, the aviation user fee appears sure to be replaced by a plan sponsored by two senators with close ties to the aircraft industry; a proposal to charge "fair market value" for enriched uranium has been killed; legislation to make barge operators pay full cost of the federal investment in waterways is in serious trouble; a plan to increase the coal tax by 50 cents a ton to finance the cost of the black lung program was rejected, and a House committee proposal to place a $5 a ton fee on ocean sewage dumping has itself been discarded.
On March 10, in one of the opening salvos of the budget fight, the administration declared: "The user fee principle is applicable to activities that provide direct economic benefits to a specific and known group . . . and where there is no need or reason for these beneficiaries to be subsidized by all taxpayers."
Five months later, however, Richard Schwartz, executive director of the Boat Owners Association, referring to the boat owners' fee, was able to boast: "We know we've squashed that concept."
The boat owners were not the only group in the fray. They have been joined in the winners' circle by western coal operators, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and the Atomic Industrial Forum, to name a few.
In the budget reconciliation bill, the administration was able to pull out one token victory -- the imposition of about $50 million a year in fees for grain inspection, and for the inspection and grading of cotton and tobacco.
In addition, the administration apparently has a shot at winning approval of a new system of port fees to make the beneficiaries of port dredging projects pay costs incurred by the Army Corps of Engineers. This potential victory, however, is likely only because the port lobby, the American Association of Port Authorities, is split.
Sources in the controversy said big ports with naturally deep harbors in fact stand to gain a competitive edge over smaller ports which, if the legislation passes, will have to charge shippers higher fees to pay for the costs of maintaining and deepening manmade channels.
In a more typical case, however, not only did Congress flatly reject the administration proposal to place a user fee on boat owners, but the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee included language in its budget reconciliation report declaring its unanimous opposition.
"Gerry Studds was 40 feet up in the air" when the fee was suggested to him, Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Calif), a key member of the House Budget Committee and one of the few congressional advocates of user fees, said.
Studds, a liberal Democrat whose district includes all of Cape Cod, is chairman of the Coast Guard and navigation subcommittee and led the fight killing the boat user fee.
The ranking Republican on the Merchant Marine Committee, M. Gene Snyder (R-Ky.), cornered Panetta on the House floor in the middle of the budget process and started what Panetta described as a "shouting match." "We are never going to have that language, period," Panetta quoted Snyder as declaring.
In the case of the airport user fee, first the administration bent under pressure from one of the strongest lobbies in Washington, the AOPA, and then Congress all but broke.
Originally, on Feb. 19, the Reagan administration proposed a 9 percent tax on passenger tickets and a 20 percent tax on general (private) aviation fuel amounting to about 40 cents a gallon with the fuel costing about $2 a gallon, along with restoration of pre-1980 charges on freight and international passenger tickets.
By March 17, the administration had backed off considerably. The proposed ticket tax was reduced to 6.5 percent and, in a more significant development, the tax on general aviation fuel was dropped from a percentage of its cost to a flat charge of 12 cents a gallon on airplane gasoline and 20 cents on jet fuel.
In the Senate, however, this compromise has run head-on into the chairman of the subcommittee on aviation, Sen. Nancy L. Kassebaum (R-Kan.), whose state is home to such companies as Beech Aircraft Corp., Cessna Aircraft Co. and Gates Learjet Corp., and the ranking Democrat, Howard W. Cannon of Nevada, whose state depends in part on private aircraft to transport fun-loving types with loose change in their pockets to the tables of Las Vegas and Reno.
In a counterproposal, Cannon and Kassebaum have come up with legislation that would set a 3 percent ticket tax and an 8.5 cent-a-gallon tax on all general aviation fuel.
The 1986 revenue figures from the three different approaches effectively tell the story: the original administration bill, $5.2 billion; the March 17 revised version, $3.5 billion; the Kassebaum-Cannon bill, $1.3 billion.
In at least two cases, congressional committees came up with user fee proposals independent of the administration, but in both cases the concept was shot down.
The Merchant Marine and Fisheries Commitee, faced with instructions from the House to come up with fees of at least $100 million in 1982, growing to $300 million in 1983, replaced the proposed boat user fee with a sewage dumping fee of about $5 a ton.
The dumping fee was purely an effort to get out from under the requirement by the House and, according to a number of sources, no one expected it to pass. The main target would have been New York City, the largest ocean dumper of sludge among the nation's municipalities. It was killed in conference committee.
Similarly, the House Education and Labor Committee wanted to produce new revenues to do its part in reducing the deficit without making deep cuts in social programs under its jurisdiction.
It came up with the increase in the coal fee, which would also have functioned to ease fiscal pressures on the black lung benefit program, a favorite of the committee chairman, Carl Perkins (D-Ky.). This fee also died in the eventual House-Senate committee.
A House plan to increase charges for enriched uranium encountered a similar fate, dying without any significant debate when it went to conference.
The plan to raise the charge to fair market value was "very poor thinking," according to a lobbyist for the Atomic Industrial Forum, who contended the higher fee would hurt the U.S. nuclear industry's ability to compete internationally.