- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 25, 2000

Even by the least generous estimates, the death tax consumes as much or more in professional fees to lawyers and accountants for estate planning than it collects upon death from a relatively small number of middle- and upper-income Americans who had the temerity to sacrifice, save and invest throughout their lives.

So why do President Clinton and his allies oppose repeal of such an inefficient tax?

In a word, politics. Class warfare the calculated fomenting of destructive class envy worked as an election issue for Democrats for 10 years, and the president evidently hopes for a replay of past victories. He vows a veto of GOP-sponsored legislation to repeal the death tax, and he is trotting out the old argument that repeal would benefit a relative handful of "rich" families.

But the fact is many who are affected by the estate tax are middle-class people whose wealth has grown during Mr. Clinton's time in the White House. So, despite the veto threat, the Senate voted to kill the estate tax last Friday by a 59-39 vote. Mr. Clinton has declared a class war but it just may be that, to paraphrase an old anti-Vietnam War slogan, no one is joining him.

Many people who do not consider themselves rich have taxable estates, and many of those who don't, in the great American tradition, hope to have one.

In some high-cost coastal areas, even a modest home costs several hundred thousand dollars, and home prices show no sign of abatement. Ordinary homeowners suddenly find themselves in need of estate planning to avoid death taxes.

What's more, in places like Seattle and the San Francisco Bay area where the high-tech boom is centered many ordinary workers are accumulating huge estates through stock options. The same is true of many clerks at Home Depot and Wal Mart, both famous for their employee stock ownership plans.

The politics of the death tax rightly have changed, as the Wall Street Journal recently reported. While campaigning in Washington state home of Microsoft Vice President Al Gore was surprised to learn the House voted by a wide margin to repeal the death tax, and he complained to liberal Sen. Patty Murray, Washington Democrat. Sen. Murray probably didn't brighten Mr. Gore's day by telling him she is a co-sponsor of a Senate bill to repeal the death tax.

And when congressmen entered the House to vote on repeal, a senior California Democrat, according to the Journal, counseled Rep. Lois Capps, California Democrat, to vote for repeal, explicitly rejecting the Clinton administration's class warfare: "[Treasury Secretary] Larry Summers doesn't live where you can't buy a house for under $400,000 pay attention to your district."

The death tax doesn't just penalize "wealthy" families especially small business and farming families whose patriarchs have the bad timing to die unexpectedly, without complex estate plans in place.

It also penalizes people who hope to build wealth. Again, the Journal: "the nation's long economic boom has given many previously excluded Americans hope that they, too, may strike it rich enough to have an estate worth turning over to their heirs."

That's the American dream. Even the likes of Mr. Clinton can't steal it.

Art Linkletter, longtime broadcast personality, is national spokesman for United Seniors Association.

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