Many refuse to pay 'war tax' on phone bill
Providers go along; IRS frowns, but does little
By M.L. LYKE
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER
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. And in many cases, the phone companies are helping them do it.
"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 hanguponwar.org.
Although many activists have been withholding 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. A New York Times/CBS News Poll released this week shows that 52 percent of Americans believe that the Bush administration intentionally misled the public when its officials made the case for war.
The so-called tax resisters risk the wrath of the Internal Revenue Service. Yet that hasn't stopped them. Sacks said he has never been contacted about it, and he is not worried he will be. "After all, I've refused to pay a $10,000 fine, still in court now," he said.
Sacks was fined $10,000 for violating economic sanctions against Iraq by taking $40,000 worth of medicine to help suffering children there.
Ruth Benn, who runs the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee in New York, said it is impossible to know for sure how many people are participating in the grass-roots movement.
"Before the war started, when the peace movement was really big, there was quite a bit of interest. Now it's picking up again," Benn said.
She said communications received by her organization and discussions with other protest coordinators suggest that at least 10,000 people nationwide are withholding federal excise tax payments because of the war.
"This is civil disobedience, and you can be at risk," Benn, 53, said. "But the government listens when it involves money. This is a good way to get their attention."
As it turns out, most phone companies aren't shedding any tears over missed federal excise tax payments. It's not that they sympathize with protesters' feelings about the war. They just don't like the tax.
Qwest Communications International Inc., which provides local phone service to most of the Seattle area, thinks the excise tax is "a silly tax that should go away," company spokeswoman Shasha Richardson said.
The Denver-based company said it adjusts customers' bills to remove the excise tax. It then complies with IRS Publication No. 510, Richardson said.
That publication requires providers of local, toll or private communications services to impose and collect a 3 percent tax on services rendered. If customers fail to pay it, the companies must give the IRS a list of those customers' names and addresses, the services provided, the dates and the amounts the customers owed.
Some phone companies may repeatedly insist that the money is due. Others, such as Qwest, make it easy for the protester.
"We believe this is an illegal tax, and we would support any legislation that repeals it," said John Britton, a spoke sman for AT&T.
He said AT&T will routinely eliminate federal excise taxes from customers' monthly bills if asked to do so in writing.
"We'll go into our system and make an adjustment," Britton said. "But we will have to report you to the government."
For its part, Cingular Wireless sends a letter to tax-resisting customers agreeing that the federal excise tax is "antiquated and discriminatory" and that it has "has far outlived its purpose."
"Please be aware, however," Cingular's letter warns, "that as required by law, Cingular Wireless will report your non-payment, and provide your name, address, amount of tax written off to the IRS."
Cingular, MCI and Verizon Wireless all say they adjust customers' monthly bills to write off the federal excise tax on a regular basis.
Tax resisters such as Benn advise would-be protesters to include a note with their phone payments explaining why they are not paying the tax. The note will make clear to the phone company what's happening and, in most cases, deter the carrier from cutting off one's service.
The federal excise tax 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.
Aspects of the federal excise tax have been challenged in recent court decisions. Nevertheless, the IRS still insists that it be paid in full. Though phone companies are legally obligated to try to collect the federal excise tax, they have no enforcement power.
Because the amount of federal excise-tax money withheld per household is so small, it's highly unusual nowadays for the IRS to go after people for not paying.
Jesse Weller, an IRS spokesman, said that failure to pay the federal excise tax on phone bills is against the law.
"There is no law that permits a person to refuse to file a federal tax return or pay a federal tax based on what the government spends on programs or policies they disagree with," he said.
"This includes failure to pay the telephone excise tax based on moral, ethical or religious opposition to government spending for weapons programs or military operations," he stressed.
Moreover, he insisted that the IRS is determined to identify all those who evade taxes "based on their opposition to government policies or programs."
Weller said such people may be liable for all unpaid taxes, as well as interest and penalty fees.
Benn, at the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee, said she hasn't paid her federal excise tax since 1980, and hasn't heard a word in all that time from the IRS.
"It's a pretty small thing," she said of the amount she denies the government each month. "It won't end the war all by itself. But perhaps it will help."
If you go to hanguponwar.org, you will find this handy form to fill out and include in your phone bill: