Opinion

Time to end the ‘temporary’ death tax

Jim Martin & Pat Boone 60 Plus Association

In 1984, Clara Peller famously asked, “Where’s the beef?” in a commercial for Wendy’s. That three-word phrase set off a flood of people wanting substance, not just talk. Recently, 80 members of the U.S. Senate voted for an amendment to “repeal or reduce” the death tax. Today, we ask the Senate, “Where’s the bill?”

We have been fighting to repeal the death tax for over 20 years and have been asked to step back into a leadership role this year. We believe, like most Americans, that it is morally wrong for the government to cash in on the passing of a loved one. It also doesn’t make economic sense. Rep. Kevin Brady’s (R-TX) Joint Economic Committee found the death tax has robbed the economy of over $1 trillion in capital, which means fewer jobs for Americans and less revenue for the government.

Past attempts to repeal the death tax have come close to success. In 2005, a bill to repeal the death tax passed overwhelmingly in the House with the support of 42 Democrats — including eight members of the Congressional Black Caucus — but fell three votes short of the 60 votes necessary in the Senate.

The renewed battle to end the death tax builds on this past effort. Brady and Sen. John Thune (R-SD) are the champions of death tax repeal in their respective chambers. During the last Congress, Brady introduced the Death Tax Repeal Permanency Act, which garnered 222 cosponsors. In the 113th Congress, six bills have been introduced in the House to repeal the death tax, but no action has yet been taken by the Senate.

To help force action on death tax repeal in Congress, we will be educating the seven million American seniors who belong to our organization, 60 Plus, on the history of the death tax. The death tax has been enacted four times as a “temporary” tax for defense purposes: in 1797, in 1862, in 1898 and in 1916. The first three times, it was repealed shortly after hostilities ended. But following the end of World War I in 1918, this “temporary” tax was conveniently kept in place as Congress increased spending at a dizzying pace. We believe it is now way past time for the death tax to go. This year, over seven million seniors will be calling on Congress to permanently eliminate the death tax.

Our new messaging strategy focuses on the intended temporary nature of the death tax. We’re modeling our approach after the successful campaign to repeal the “temporary” tax on telephones enacted in 1898 to help finance the Spanish-American War. This telephone tax was peddled in much the same way the death tax is today — as a tax only on the wealthy. It originally affected about 15,000 people, but by the time of its eventual repeal in 2006, over 300 million phones were being taxed. We’ll use the same rationale and strategy to end the antiquated death tax. Our goal is to see it repealed by 2017, roughly the 100th anniversary of its enactment.

Studies from liberal and conservative economists alike reach the same conclusion: the death tax raises very little money, but kills well over a million jobs and falls disproportionately on small businesses and the middle class — not the rich, who hire lawyers and accountants to avoid the tax whenever possible.

The death tax has stuck around for almost 100 years, making it the lone survivor of World War I. Since the inception of the death tax, rates and exemptions have changed, creating work for accountants, attorneys and estate planners while causing a nightmare for family businesses. It’s time to stop tinkering with the law and drive a stake through the “temporary” death tax a fourth and final time. The 80 senators who voted to “repeal or reduce” the estate tax earlier this year should help us take the first step by producing a bipartisan bill that makes good on our goal of burying this confiscatory tax.

Jim Martin is chairman and founder of the 60 Plus Association. Pat Boone is the 60 Plus Association’s national spokesman.