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GOP "Death Tax" Fraud Back from the Grave

April 2, 2009

In 2001, President Bush waged a largely successful campaign to curb the estate tax. But eight years after denouncing that scourge of the ultra-rich, Republicans have resurrected their "death tax" talking point, complete with its repeatedly debunked claims about the impact of estate levies on small businesses and family farms. Even as they decry the deficit spending the Bush recession has required, Congressional Republicans aided and abetted by some Democrats are pushing an estate tax windfall for the wealthiest Americans that within a decade could drain up to $1 trillion from the U.S. Treasury.
The battle lines have been joined over the expiration of the 2001 Bush tax cuts, which are due to expire next year. Included in that bonanza for the rich was the gradual reduction and temporary elimination of the estate tax. As the Washington Post noted, under President Obama budget, 99.76% of estates would pay no taxes whatsoever:

The estate tax is scheduled to disappear in 2010, only to be resurrected the following year at its 2001 level, when it applied only to estates worth over $2 million per couple at a rate of 55 percent. In fact, no one expects it to return to that level -- although letting it do so would be a far more rational response to the current crisis than the Lincoln-Kyl approach. Rather, President Obama has proposed holding the tax at this year's level: an exemption of $7 million per couple, with a 45 percent rate for amounts beyond that; this would cost $484 billion over 10 years. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) has endorsed this solution, with indexing for inflation. This would hardly be punitive. At that level, 99.76 percent of estates would incur no tax whatsoever. Those who owe would pay, on average, $2.25 million less than they would have paid at the 2001 exemption level. Why in the world should these folks get more of a tax cut?

Why? Because even in a time of national economic calamity, the Republican Party remains committed to dramatically shifting the tax burden away from the wealthiest Americans.
The House GOP alternative budget fittingly unveiled on April Fool's Day by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) provides the most extreme example. Under his plan, as he succinctly put it in the Wall Street Journal, "the death tax is repealed." In 2006, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated the elimination of the estate tax would cost $70 billion a year. The ultimate price tag for the Treasury over 10 years, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) would reach $1 trillion.
While Ryan's giveaway has no chance of passing, a Senate amendment co-sponsored by Republican John Kyl (R-AZ) and Democrat Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) does. Their proposal, which shields "the first $10 million of estates from taxation and lower to 35 percent the tax on amounts beyond that," would produce a 10-year, $250 billion bonanza for America's rich and famous compared to the already generous Obama budget proposal. (That includes the Waltons, owners of Wal-Mart and the first family of Lincoln's home state of Arkansas.) It's no wonder the New York Times mocked Kyl and Lincoln's concern for "the forgotten rich."
But despite the inescapable truth that only a tiny fraction of the richest Americans are impacted by the federal estate tax, the Republican Party and its amen corner continue to regurgitate the mythology about farmers and small business owners caught in its web. While the Wall Street Journal warns of "the night of the living death tax," Fox News cried, "Obama's budget resurrects 'death tax.'" Molly Henneberg's April Fool's Day diatribe in defense of the oppressed rich faithfully reproduced GOP talking points long since disproven:

Republicans argue this tax doesn't just strike the wealthy.
"It destroys a lot of small businesses and a lot of family farms and ranches in America," said Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev.
"People who aren't wealthy, who may have built up value in land over generations and many family farms find themselves in situations where they've got to sell the farm in order the pay the taxes," said House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.

Unfortunately, it doesn't go without saying that these claims are just as false today as when George W. Bush uttered them in 2001.
Of course, the complete falsehood of a statement is no barrier to Republicans uttering it. Now as in 2001, Republicans wrongly claimed that the estate tax led to the loss of family farms. When President Bush blasted opponents who say "the death tax doesn't cause people to sell their farms" with a mocking "don't know who they're talking to in Iowa," neither Hawkeye State farmers nor researchers could name one. As David Cay Johnston, among the nation's leading journalists when it comes to tax issues, conclude in the New York Times eight years ago:

Almost no working farmers do, according to data from an Internal Revenue Service analysis of 1999 returns that has not yet been published. Neil Harl, an Iowa State University economist whose tax advice has made him a household name among Midwest farmers, said he had searched far and wide but had never found a farm lost because of estate taxes. "It's a myth," he said. Even one of the leading advocates for repeal of estate taxes, the American Farm Bureau Federation, said it could not cite a single example of a farm lost because of estate taxes.

As it turns out, the rotting corpse of the "death tax" isn't the only fraud recently exhumed by the Republican Party. During the stimulus debate, Mitch McConnell and other GOP leaders falsely claimed the Obama would raise taxes on small business owners, less than 2% of which are impacted by the move to roll back the Bush tax cuts for those earning over $250,000 annually. And as the budget battle heats up, Republican leaders parrot the epic lie that the President's proposed cap and trade system would cost American families $3,100 a year.
Sadly, the American media refuses to decapitate the "death tax" and other zombie Republican talking points that just won't die.

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Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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