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Anti-War Activists Launch War on Telephone Taxes

2 min readBy: Andrew Chamberlain

The controversial 3-cent telephone excise tax—first passed in 1898 as a temporary “luxury taxA tax is a mandatory payment or charge collected by local, state, and national governments from individuals or businesses to cover the costs of general government services, goods, and activities. ” to help fund the Spanish-American War—has an unlikely new opponent: peace activists opposing Bush administration foreign policy. From the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

For Seattle peace activist Bert Sacks, the monthly act of resistance adds up to only 59 cents. Symbolically, however, refusing to pay the “war tax” on his Qwest phone bill represents a pocketbook protest against what he sees as misuse of U.S. military power.

“I object to the U.S. government policy of using famine and epidemic as tools against civilian populations. That’s wrong,” says the retired engineer, who has fought for a decade to get economic sanctions against Iraq lifted.

Sacks is one of thousands of Americans believed to be refusing to pay the federal taxes attached to their monthly phone bills — money that helps fund military operations overseas. Many are taking the step as a protest against the war in Iraq.

“We oppose the policies of ‘pre-emptive war’ and an ‘endless’ war on terrorism, which led to the Iraq war, which violate human rights and international law, and which have cost us hundreds of billions of dollars while our states and cities face unprecedented deficits, and cutbacks of vital services and programs,” reads the statement on a Web site called

Although many activists have been withholdingWithholding is the income an employer takes out of an employee’s paycheck and remits to the federal, state, and/or local government. It is calculated based on the amount of income earned, the taxpayer’s filing status, the number of allowances claimed, and any additional amount of the employee requests. the phone tax since the Vietnam War, the act of disobedience is making headlines again as more Americans began to question the rationale for the Iraq war…

The federal excise taxAn excise tax is a tax imposed on a specific good or activity. Excise taxes are commonly levied on cigarettes, alcoholic beverages, soda, gasoline, insurance premiums, amusement activities, and betting, and typically make up a relatively small and volatile portion of state and local and, to a lesser extent, federal tax collections. on phone usage dates back to 1898. It was adopted under the War Revenue Act as a temporary levy to help fund the Spanish-American War. The war ended in October of that year. The tax was repealed in 1902 but didn’t stay gone for long. It was reintroduced during World War I and was subsequently used to help fund the nation’s military activities during World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

The tax was given permanent status in 1990. It raises about $6 billion a year for general federal expenditures, including military spending. (Full piece here.)

Legislation was introduced in the House this year to repeal the infamous phone tax (see more on H.R. 1898 here).

Over the years we’ve written a lot on the topic. See here for our Background Paper on the history of the phone tax. See here for our Special Brief on the tax. See page six here for a shorter Tax Watch piece on it.