House Finally Gets It Right on Estate Tax, But Trouble Is Brewing in the Senate


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Before the House passed the bill ending the private debt collection program, Republican members used procedural rules to force a vote on a complete, unpaid for repeal of the estate tax. The measure was defeated 212-196, a major setback for the handful of super-rich families that have been funding a repeal campaign for several years. The House has voted several times during the Bush years to repeal the estate tax. According to a statement from Republican Whip Roy Blunt (R-MO) 42 Democrats voted to repeal the estate tax the last time it came up for a vote while this time only ten did, indicating that several have decided for the first time to stand up to the extreme anti-tax rhetoric used by opponents of the estate tax.

Supporters of a fair estate tax needed this news after developments in the Senate last week. As the Senate Finance Committee marked up its tax package for the agriculture bill reported on last week, Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) offered an amendment to significantly reduce the estate tax without paying for it. Senator Kyl only withdrew his amendment after Senate Finance Chairman Baucus agreed to hold a hearing on the estate tax sometime this year and mark up a bill in the spring.

Fewer Than One Percent of Estates Subject to Tax

The most recent data released from CTJ show that the percentage of estates subject to the tax was less than 1 percent in most states in 2005. Even fewer estates are likely to be taxable this year because the exemption is larger ($2 million for a single taxpayer vs. $1.5 million in 2005). Under the estate tax cut enacted by the Bush and the Republican-led Congress, the estate tax is gradually reduced until it disappears in 2010, but then returns in 2011.

Some lawmakers want to compromise and essentially freeze in place the estate tax rules that will be in effect in 2009, including a $3.5 million exemption for single taxpayers and a 45 percent rate. The budget resolution Congress adopted for fiscal year 2008 assumes that this compromise will be enacted. The amendment offered by Kyl last week would have gone much farther because it would increase the exemption to $5 million, tax the value of the estate between $5 million and $25 million at 15 percent and then tax the rest at 30 percent.

In Search of the Elusive Family Farm Threatened by the Estate Tax

Much of the rhetoric used by estate tax opponents revolves around family-owned small businesses, especially farms, that they claim are endangered because of the estate tax. Contrary to what the anti-tax advocates claim, very few farms or small businesses, if any, would ever have to be sold because of estate taxes.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, there were only 1,659 farm estates that were taxable in 2000 (when the estate tax was steeper because the exemptions were smaller and the rate was a little higher) and of these, only 138 did not have enough liquid assets to pay their estate taxes immediately, meaning some part of the estate could conceivably be sold in order to pay the tax. The CBO also found that if the exemption level was as high as it is today only 15 farm estates would have been both taxable and lacking the liquid assets to pay the tax.

Those 15 farm estates would likely weather the estate tax just fine. This CTJ paper describes the extra breaks that family farms get from the estate tax (in addition to the exemptions all estates get) including a provision that allows the tax to be paid off over a period of 14 years. The American Farm Bureau Federation famously admitted to the New York Times in 2001 that they could not cite a single example of a farm that had to be sold due to the estate tax.

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