August 30, 2005

August 30, 2005 | Commentary on Taxes

Keep the Death Tax Dead

In Washington, nothing's certain except death, taxes and special-interest lobbying groups. So it makes sense that the death tax has its own lobbyists.

That's right. "Americans for a Fair Estate Tax" knows a Senate vote is coming soon, and they're hard at work. Their Web site describes the group as "a coalition fighting to preserve a fair estate tax." Of course, the name of the group is itself misleading.

There's nothing fair about the estate tax, or as some of us prefer to call it, the death tax. It hits people at the worst possible time. Just as they're dealing with the passing of a loved one, they must settle an estate with the IRS, a process that can be costly. Many families have been forced to sell their land or shutter the family business just to pay the death tax, which can seize up to half of a dead person's assets.

Congress has taken sensible steps to phase out the death tax. It's scheduled to decline every year until 2010, when it will finally disappear. But unless lawmakers act to make that permanent, the death tax will return in 2011 -- at the same high rates that existed in 2002.

So, why would anyone want to protect a measure that makes even dying a taxable event?

"Americans for a Fair Estate Tax" explains in a set of handy talking points, available on its Web page. For one thing, it claims the federal government can't afford to cut the death tax. "We are facing deficits as far as the eye can see, and Congress will vote this year on cuts in important programs," the group insists.

Well, Congress often votes on spending cuts. The problem is, it seldom approves the cuts. Over the last five years, federal spending has increased 33 percent. So when you get right down to it, the budget could stand a little cutting.

Besides, the death tax itself carries hidden costs. Heritage Foundation economist William Beach estimates that the federal estate tax alone costs the U.S. between 170,000 and 250,000 potential jobs each year. These jobs never materialize because the investments that would have created them aren't made. By repealing the death tax, we'd allow the economy to create even more jobs, which would make all of us better off.

The pro-death tax lobbyists also claim, "Repeal or bad reform of the estate tax would have a damaging effect on the nation's charities." But this doesn't pan out, either.

The Congressional Joint Economic Committee reports that charitable bequests in 2003 reached a record $21.6 billion -- a 25 percent increase from 1999. And that's with the death-tax rate declining and set to go even lower in years to come. If anything, the death tax crowds out charitable giving: The larger the share of an estate the government seizes, the less money remains for survivors to support worthy causes.

Finally, the group claims, "A fair estate tax supports the underlying values of the American dream." Not really. Americans have always understood the danger of over-taxation and fought against it.

This country was born out of a tax revolt. In our earliest days, the Boston Tea Party and the slogan "No taxation without representation" symbolized our aversion to taxes. Today, even low-wage earners are willing to hire a tax preparer to make sure they pay as little as possible. So it's difficult to believe that Americans support a policy that takes from the dead to feed the federal coffers.

When the Senate returns, it's expected to consider a measure that would permanently repeal the death tax. The House has already passed a similar bill. Senators should do the right thing and put both "Americans for a Fair Estate Tax" -- and the death tax itself -- out of business for good.

Ed Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office