When Congress comes back from recess in September, Rep. Kevin McCarthy will begin his first days as the majority leader of the House. The moderate but amiable California Republican will face a number of major challenges in his new role, among them a conservative-leaning caucus that will expect conservative votes; an autocratic Senate majority leader who won’t allow conservative measures to even come to a vote; a Democratic president bent on vilifying the GOP as obstructionist at best; and a tough election, where the GOP needs to win the Senate to have any hope of legislative success before January 2017.
Fortunately for Republican leadership, Mr. McCarthy has a vote he can bring to the floor — one that Americans overwhelmingly support; one that would unify conservatives; and one that would put red state Democrats in an awkward position while giving farm state Republicans a boost. That vote is to repeal the death tax.
The death tax, or the estate tax, is a pariah to the American public — a tax whose unpopularity consistently eludes progressives. Polls consistently show a large majority of the American public supports death-tax repeal, including a poll by the nonpartisan Tax Foundation, which found that it is considered the most “unfair” federal-level tax. That 2009 poll (unfortunately, the most recent) showed just over one-third of those polled favoring complete repeal. This week, by contrast, favored Republican target Obamacare hovered at just above half of Americans supporting repeal.
And while the House hasn’t voted on repealing the death tax since sending it to the Senate in 2005, Congress has, by contrast, voted over 50 times to change Obamacare — and six times to repeal it. (APRIL 2012: House GOP freshmen pressure Boehner to call vote on ‘death tax’ repeal)
The reason for unwavering popular opposition to the death tax (under whatever name pundits call it), is that it is a tax on responsible savings, and it is a tax that favors corporations while punishing family businesses that can’t exempt themselves from it. This is precisely the sort of vote conservative and libertarian Republicans can unite on. It is the sort of vote that will unite them behind Mr. McCarthy, who is currently — and correctly — viewed as a moderate. Winning conservative support right out of the gate would be a good play for the incoming majority leader, and allow him more trust on later votes. (JULY 2012: Lawmakers, activists ratchet up pressure on GOP leaders for full ‘death tax’ repeal)
So far, that checks “good by Americans” and “smart Washington politics.” But is there any chance a Republican repeal vote would pass the Senate?
No. It’s almost impossible to imagine Mr. Reid ever even allowing a vote.
So if there isn’t a real chance of repealing the death tax, isn’t a repeal vote just Washington politics as usual?
No. It’s almost the opposite: It’s a call to stand on the record. Take, for example, the mysterious case of Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor — an Arkansas senator fighting Republican Rep. Tom Cotton for re-election. Pryor represents his family-farm-heavy state as chairman of the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, and to the tune of representing family farmers, his last campaign included a promise to repeal the death tax. Under the “Economic Growth” section of his site, voters could even see his pledge: “I support the permanent repeal of an estate tax that harms small businesses and family farmers.”
But when he had the chance to make good on his promise, the senator from Arkansas voted “Nay” along with 40 colleagues, narrowly blocking what looked to be a sure-shot repeal from coming to a vote.
His pledge was still shockingly listed on his website when he helped Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid derail the vote. Anti-death tax lobbyist Palmer Schoening told The Daily Caller that when questioned on the reversal, aides said the pledge was just an “unintentional holdover” from the campaign. The site was quickly reworded to say, “I support updating and modernizing our tax laws to shield small business owners and family farmers from the estate tax… I do not believe full repeal of the estate tax is a fiscally responsible option at this time.”
That is Washington politics as usual. Dead (tax) to rights, so to say.
Mr. Cotton, along with dozens of his colleagues who have entered the House in the last nine years, has never had a chance to vote on death-tax repeal. Getting that vote on their records would be a great assist on the campaign trail, where they can point to bare-faced lies by opponents like Mr. Pryor as evidence state voters have been betrayed, and reason to send conservatives to replace them. (THIS ACTUALLY HAPPENED: Pryor Blames Cotton For Ebola Dangers)
Good by Americans? Check. Smart Washington politics? Check. Good for struggling Republicans? Check. And if, by those three measures, it passes the House, Mr. Reid’s destruction of the 60-vote cloture threshold helps put Republicans in the strongest position in a decade to pass repeal in the Senate this January. Then the ball is in the president’s court — which is a fine place to play — and true repeal is as close as it has been in years.
Seeing the clearly intelligent politics of this move, Mr. McCarthy’s predecessor, former Rep. Eric Cantor, had even privately agreed to bring repeal forward this legislative session, but when his district’s voters turned him out, the momentum faded. That momentum must be returned, and Mr. McCarthy is in the position to do just that.
Conservative congressmen and candidates are ready to say no to an unpopular, unjust and immoral tax. Now all they need is Mr. McCarthy to give them the chance this September. Which he can. Which he should. Which he must.