The Company You Keep


“If we are going to have any taxes at all, the fairest place to start is with dead billionaires.” That quote – from Chuck Collins of Responsible Watch – is one side of the argument against doing away with inheritance taxes, a mission high on the priority list of the Bush administration and the Republican leadership in Congress.

The other side of the argument is to call it a basically unfair “death tax.” That’s the mantra that’s been used for years to rationalize raising the limits before the inheritance tax kicks in, and eventually to do away with it altogether.

The subject was taken up over the weekend by columnist Robert Kuttner in the Boston Globe. Kuttner, whose background is economics, sees a last-minute push to kill the tax altogether as one of the GOP’s top priorities during a lame duck session of Congress after the fall elections. He also sees it as an economic disaster for the middle class:

Under current law, only the richest 1 percent of estates pay taxes at all, yet wealth is so concentrated in America that this tax brings in half a trillion dollars over the next decade. If we repeal that tax, either taxes must be raised on other working Americans, or more programs cut – or deficits will swell.

I’ve been watching this issue percolate for years, and while I’m certainly no expert in tax policy, the idea of cutting taxes on the richest Americans is one I can relate to on a personal and political level, as can just about everyone.

Semantics are obviously an important element in this debate Since the inheritance tax is only invoked on estates worth more than $5 million, it would be just as accurate to call this the “millionaires’ tax” rather than the “death tax.” I doubt many supporters of its repeal will be using that phraseology, however. Most Americans may wish they were millionaires, but few of us are.

On the other hand, if you’re a member of Congress you almost certainly know plenty of people who fall in that category – in fact, your political survival may depend on knowing them and keeping good relations. As the cost of campaigns keeps climbing, members are relying more and more every year on those $1,000-and-up contributions from loyal supporters. Clearly, that kind of discretionary spending isn’t likely to come from families with modest means.

When this whole issue first arose back in the late 70s, it was Senator Alan Cranston (D-Calif) who started the ball rolling on behalf of some wealthy supporters of his: California winemakers Ernest and Julio Gallo. You can find the details in a PBS backgrounder on the Gallos from the 1996 Frontline show “So You Want to Buy a President.”

In fact, the law that started chipping away at the inheritance tax, and then expanding it in 1986, was known informally as the “Gallo amendment.” Bob Dole was its driving force in the 1986 tax bill, and it paid him handsome dividends that helped propel his run for president. According to the Frontline backgrounder:

When Dole supported a second tax amendment lobbied for by the Gallos, his PAC received $20,000 from Ernest, Julio and their wives in one day. The amendment passed and Bob Dole was on his way to cementing his relationship with the Gallos, who according to federal campaign records, have since become his top career benefactors. The Gallos have contributed $381,000 to Dole over the years and about $900,000 to foundations with which the Senator has been connected.

Back in those early days, politicians who supported easing up on the inheritance tax tended to be embarrassed when the subject came up. These days embarrassment is a word that seems virtually unknown on Capitol Hill, even when it applies to causes undertaken for wealthy contributors.

So mark your calendars and get ready for some interesting payback politics after the votes are counted in November, especially if the GOP loses control of the House. A lame-duck session could be the last opportunity (for a while anyway) to reward the loyal supporters of the current regime. And it looks like the millionaires will be at the front of the line.