The Death Tax Should Stay Dead


By J.D. Foster

Last Saturday the Baltimore Ravens inflicted a stunning defeat on the New England Patriots in an NFL wildcard game. In interviews after the game, the Ravens’ all-world middle linebacker, Ray Lewis, explained how his defense had stuffed one of the great offenses of the modern era – through study and insight he knew their offense and tendencies as well as the Patriots did. Knowing the opposition has long been a key to victory.

As opposing forces gather in 2010 it’s important to understand the goals, mindset, and overall stratagem of the defenders of the death tax. Contrary to all expectations early in 2009, the death tax has expired. Congress allowed it to pass away temporarily on January 1 of this year when after nine years it failed to find a permanent compromise. By the end of 2009 there simply was no compromise that could get 60 votes in the Senate.

Now the tax is temporarily no more and still there is no 60-vote compromise. The obvious solution is to pass a compromise attached to a tax extenders bill – a bill extending a slew of long-established yet “temporary” tax provisions like the R&D tax credit that Congress once again to its shame allowed to lapse at the end of 2009. The trouble is, still no compromise.

The presumption is Congress will get around to a compromise sometime in 2010. It won’t. Not if the congressional leadership can help it. The left-most wing of the Democratic party in Congress, led by Speaker Pelosi, really want the death tax back the way it was before 2001. Not a $3 million exemption, but a $1 million exemption. Not a 30 or 35 or 45 percent rate, but a 55 percent rate. And all they have to do to get what they want is do nothing. Doing nothing is not a hard thing for Congress to do.

On January 1, 2011, death tax defenders get their wish automatically if Congress has by then managed to do nothing. They will take some heat if the death tax returns, but as the health care bill and the House vote on cap and trade demonstrated, congressional liberals and their allies are admirably willing to suffer political loss to achieve core belief policy gains.

The best solution is to keep the death tax dead. But it is coming back in one form or another. Proponents of death tax relief need to understand what the opposition is planning. They are planning to do nothing. To defeat them, and keep the death tax to a minimum, a maximum effort will be needed to compel Congress to act no later than the fall with an election bearing down and a short legislative calendar to work with.


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