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Case Against Inheritance Tax Is Bogus

The case for abolishing the federal estate tax is a sham, deflated by Congress' own research and investigative reporting.
 
 
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A devastating hurricane hits the Gulf Coast. The war in Iraq claims almost 1,900 American lives with no end in sight in both casualties and cost. And red ink flows through both short- and long-term federal deficit projections. Yet in the coming weeks, congressional leaders will move to abolish permanently the estate tax, America's only levy on concentrations of inherited wealth.

Only after considerable pressure to respond to Hurricane Katrina and observe Chief Justice William Rehnquist's funeral did Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist back off from his determination to begin the estate tax debate immediately after Labor Day.

It will be fascinating to watch how the senators from Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama explain to their constituents why a $1 trillion tax break for multimillionaires and billionaires, few of whom live in their states, ranks as a timely national priority.

The case for abolishing the federal estate tax is a sham, deflated by Congress' own research and investigative reporting. Yet congressional tax cutters continue to incant the "death tax" mythology: that the estate tax punishes success, sinks family farmers and small businesses, and is unfair double taxation. In the post-Katrina environment, they have even gone so far as to make the far-fetched claim that estate tax repeal will be an economic stimulus to the Gulf states.

There is no evidence that the estate tax imperils small-scale farms or America's entrepreneurial spirit. The estate tax is paid solely by multimillionaires and billionaires, and only after they pass on substantial wealth to their heirs. And the bulk of the assets subject to the tax take the form of appreciated property and stocks, wealth that has never been subject to any tax, let alone a double tax.

The heirs to some of America's largest family fortunes, including members of the Mars candy and Walton families, have paid handsomely to promote these myths. But the responsibility at this moment lies with congressional leaders who must justify a windfall tax cut for the wealthy during a time of war and natural disaster.

Never before has our country passed tax cuts for the wealthy during a time of war. Historically, wealth has been "conscripted," in the Civil War parlance, to share in the sacrifice and preserve domestic unity.

Isn't anyone embarrassed about this inequality of sacrifice?

It is unlikely repeal advocates in the Senate will muster the votes to abolish the tax, though the vote will be close. The real risk is that the Senate will reach agreement on an irresponsible reform that will effectively gut the law.

Repeal advocates, such as Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, have offered their own "reform" proposals that would raise the amount of wealth exempted by the tax to more than $10 million and drop the rate to 15 percent from its current level of 47 percent. Such an irresponsible reform would lose more than 85 percent of the revenue raised by the tax and cripple the nation's charitable sector, which according to a Congressional Budget Office study would experience a decline in estate giving of more than $10 billion a year.

We support a more modest reform that raises the wealth exemption to $5 million for a couple, keeps the rate at 45 percent, and carves out provisions for the transfer of closely held family business. Such a reform would retain substantial revenue in the face of war, disaster and deficits, and maintain a powerful incentive for charitable giving.

The proponents of all-or-nothing repeal have blocked proposals for such reasonable reforms since the summer of 2000. But it's time to bring predictability back into the estate planning process.

The estate tax is the most fair and equitable tax in the land. A levy on estates in excess of $5 million is an appropriate mechanism for those who have disproportionately benefited from our marvelous system of wealth creation to pay back the society that fostered the fertile ground for their success.

The estate tax should be rightfully understood as a "gratitude tax."

Bill Gates Sr. is co-chairman of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Chuck Collins is senior fellow at United for a Fair Economy, a nonprofit research group. They wrote this article for the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.