- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 18, 2005

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

That’s right. “Americans for a Fair Estate Tax” knows a Senate vote may come soon, and they have been hard at work. Their Web site describes the group as “a coalition fighting to preserve a fair estate tax.”

Of course, the group’s name is 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 a loved one’s passing, they must settle an estate with the Internal Revenue Service, which 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 make that permanent, the death tax returns in 2011 — at the high rates of 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.”

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 the federal estate tax alone costs the United States between 170,000 and 250,000 potential jobs each year.

These jobs never materialize because the investments aren’t made. Repealing the death tax would allow the economy to create even more jobs, which would make us all 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 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 overtaxation 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 Americans support a policy that takes from the dead to feed the federal coffers.

The Senate soon may 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.

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