“The only difference between death and taxes is that death doesn’t get worse every time Congress meets,” Will Rogers once wrote. Given Washington’s track record, it’s hard to blame Rogers for being cynical.
If President Trump gets his way, however, taxes could actually improve. One part of them, anyway: the estate, or “death” tax.
The death tax — the penalty families have to pay when a loved one dies and leaves them significant assets — has been hotly contested for years. The president vowed on the campaign trail to see it repealed, and sure enough, his economic plan would, ahem, kill it.
It shouldn’t be hard. Congress, after all, has taken steps before to do away with the death tax. A House bill that attracted not only Republican support but also that of 42 Democrats passed in 2015. It fell three votes short in the Senate, however.
Now lawmakers have another chance to do the right thing.
Wait, some may say, doesn’t the death tax just affect the super-rich? Hardly. The tax has destroyed countless family-owned businesses over the years.
Even worse, the death tax often taxes money that’s already been taxed at some earlier time. For example, the children of a family-owned farm can be asked to pay taxes again on inherited equipment, land and other assets. If they can’t pay the tax, owners of family businesses could have to liquidate their parents’ life-long achievement to pay the IRS. The death tax is simply not right.
Congress has been all over the map on this issue during the last decade or so. In 2001, lawmakers passed a law that gradually phased out the levy, which then stood at 55 percent (for those in the top tax bracket). It actually disappeared altogether in 2010 — a good year to die if you wanted to leave your business to your family and not your greedy Uncle Sam.
But like a killer in a cheap horror film, the death tax came back.
It doesn’t just come gunning for inheritances, though. The death tax is a job killer. It encourages wealthy Americans to spend their money today rather than invest it in growing a business. After all, we’re all going to die. What’s the point of building a bigger nest egg if Washington is just going to take a third of it, a half of it, or even more?
Because the estate tax discourages investment, it also holds down wage growth. Since businesses have less funding, they’re less able to purchase new tools and equipment. So workers are less productive and suffer slower wage and salary growth.
The death tax also hammers some Americans more than others, since it especially targets landowners. Millions of farmers, ranchers and homeowners have improved their land. Yet when they die, the federal government punishes their heirs.
“The family could have used the cash that goes to pay the death tax to add new workers, pay higher wages, or increase benefits,” writes tax expert Curtis Dubay.
Who benefits from the death tax? Estate tax lawyers. Life insurance companies. Large businesses — and, of course, big government. Outside of these groups, there’s no justification for it.
It was created a century ago to help fund World War I and as a way to prevent the build-up of wealth in a small number of families. “The death tax serves neither of these purposes today,” Dubay writes.
And let’s not forget how the death tax contributes to big government. As Jim Martin, founder of the 60 Plus Association, has pointed out, it has been enacted four times in our history, and each time as a “temporary measure” — in 1797, 1862, 1898 and 1916. The first three times, Congress promptly repealed it once war had ended. But after World War I, it stayed in place. Meanwhile, Congress started spending money at a precipitous rate.
Here’s hoping Congress can help President Trump drive a stake through the heart of the death tax — and let the economy benefit from its permanent demise.
This piece originally appeared in the Evansville Courier Press