- The Washington Times - Monday, June 26, 2000

I think it's so irritating that once I die, 55 percent of my money goes to the United States Government.

Oprah Winfrey

June 9 witnessed one of the most stunning votes on the House floor in many years. The U.S. House of Representatives voted to phase out the death tax. Not to trim it; but to stick a stake through the heart of this destroyer of wealth and family legacies.

The death tax, of course, has long been beloved by the class warfare lobby on the left as Washington's ultimate income redistribution tool. Only the rich pay the death tax, they insist. Wall Street Journal columnist Al Hunt moaned last week that this is a tax that hits "only the sons and daughters of the elite-never the working class." In predictable fashion, liberal think tanks including the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities protested that the richest 1 percent of American families would receive at least three-quarters of the benefit. David Broder of The Washington Post sneered: "Congressional Republicans structure a $50 billion bonanza to the heirs of Bill Gates and other newly minted millionaires. At the same time, they block modest workplace reforms, delay an increase in the minimum wage, and drag their feet on a patient bill of rights." And that was one of the tamer outbursts.

Yet despite the indignation, the left was not just defeated on this issue. They were trounced. The bill passed with unanimous Republican support not a single liberal Northeast Republican bolted. Even more astounding, 65 Democrats voted Aye. The House now has a veto-proof majority to terminate a 75-year-old tax that robs the grave of Americans and forces the family divestiture of farms and businesses.

The Senate should now follow the House's lead. The momentum is with the tax slayers. The vote in the House demonstrates this is not just the moral thing to do; it is the politically popular thing to do.

How can this be? After all, we have been told for the better part of the past 18 months by pollsters and pundits that Americans don't want tax cuts. Answer: the pundits were wrong. What is even more discombobulating to the Washington pinheads is how Joe Sixpack could support "tax breaks for the rich."

But the class warfare argument fell flat on its face. Even several liberal Democrats like Hawaii's Rep. Neil Abercrombie, supported the repeal. Mr. Abercrombie explained his vote by noting: "I'm hearing more complaints about the death tax from my constituents than I did on the China trade vote." Stop the presses. Joe Lunch-bucket wants the death tax ended.

Again, the question is why? I think I can explain the answer. Several years ago I sat in on a focus group meeting on the death tax. About 25 working-class Americans these were anything but rich fat cats were asked to express their views on this issue. To my amazement, about 3 in 4 said they believed the death tax was unfair.

Even when it was explained to these workers again and again that very few of the people in that room would ever pay the death tax themselves, they reiterated even more forcefully that it's not a fair tax, regardless of who pays it. These Americans instinctively understood that when Bill Gates, or Oprah Winfrey or Michael Jordan die with their billions of dollars of assets, that wealth and savings already has been taxed. Up to half of it was taxed when it was earned. Stop the injustice of taxing it twice, was the retort of these fair-minded Americans.

As you can imagine, this was music to my ears. Teachers and construction workers and computer engineers can grasp a concept double taxation that Dick Gephardt and Tom Daschle are hopelessly uneducable on.

I discovered at this meeting that Americans hate the death tax for another more deeply ingrained reason. Most voters just don't have that reflexive hatred for the rich and the successful that the class warriors do. Mention John Walton, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet or Britney Spears and these middle class folks sparkle with admiration for what these fabulously rich Americans have accomplished. While most Washington pundits obsess all day and night about how unfair it is that some people own yachts and Rolls Royces, normal Americans, when they think about yachts at all, are scheming in their minds about how they can get one someday for themselves. (Whyelse would the book "The Millionaire Next Door" be such a mega-seller?)

One thing Americans love about America is that this is the globe's one true meritocracy. Yes, Americans are compassionate (here George W. Bush is right on the mark). They want a system that doesn't leave people behind. They are absolutely insistent about a safety net. But they innately disapprove of a tax system that erases the rewards of success, virtue and hard work. They reject the income redistributionist mindset that a bigger slice of the pie for Bill Gates means a smaller slice for themselves. They disapprove of the death tax, strangely enough, because they think it is by its very design and intent, un-American.

And here we have, wonderfully, the fairness issue turned right on its head. What Rep. Dick Gephardt, Missouri Democrat, no doubt views as the fairest tax of all is viewed by his constituents as the most immoral tax.

One last point. Yes, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities is right that based on current wealth holdings, more than 90 percent of Americans would never be impacted by the death tax. But as more and more Americans become owners and shareholders, the tax will start to bite even modestly successful ranchers, farmers, businessmen and investors. The concept that eludes the class warfare crowd is that Americans are dreamers and achievers. Most Americans think they themselves could be as rich as Oprah. This is the very essence of the Ameircan dream. They aspire to a level of affluence that only in America can ordinary people achieve.

And when their ship comes in, these ordinary Americans shudder at the idea that half of it is going to be snatched away by their friends at the Internal Revenue Service.

Stephen Moore is president of the Club for Growth.

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