Senate Republicans blocked action on aid for millions of unemployed Americans this week, and threatened to continue to do so unless Congress acts on a completely unrelated matter: the federal tax on the estates of millionaires.
The Need for Help for the Unemployed
Congress has an opportunity to help families hardest hit by the recession while at the same time increasing consumer demand, which in turn will increase the number of businesses that are hiring. The Congressional Budget Office has found that extending unemployment benefits is one of the most effective ways to increase consumer demand (i.e., create jobs), making it attractive from the standpoint of economic policy as well as compassion for struggling Americans. (There are 6 job-seekers for every open position right now.)
By the end of February, 1.1 million people are scheduled to lose their UI benefits, and another 2.7 million are scheduled to lose them by the end of March. Senate Democrats hoped to move by unanimous consent to extend UI benefits and COBRA health care benefits for out-of-work Americans for 30 days, to tide them over until a longer-term extension can make its way through Congress.
Help for the Unemployed Held Hostage for Tax Cuts for Millionaires
Senate Republicans denied the unanimous consent request to pass an extension of UI and COBRA. The objection was raised by Senator Jim Bunning (R-KY) over the source of funding. But the measure is apparently also being held hostage by Senators wanting to give multi-millionaires a break on the estate tax.
The tax law passed under President Bush in 2001 gradually repealed the estate tax over several years until making it completely disappear this year. But, since the Bush tax cuts expire at the end of 2010, the estate tax will return in 2011 in its pre-Bush form (with the tax exempting the first $1 million in assets, per spouse, and a top estate tax rate of 55 percent).
House Democrats decided last year that a million dollars just isn't what it used to be, and passed a bill that would permanently increase the exemption and lower the rate, but not let the estate tax disappear in 2010. (Technically, they passed a permanent extension of the estate tax rules in effect in 2009, with a $3.5 million per-spouse exemption and a top rate of 45 percent.) But the Senate failed to act on the measure.
Under the proposal approved by the House, fewer than one percent of deaths would result in estate tax liability. Apparently that's too many for Senators Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who have wanted to repeal the estate tax for years and now hope that they can at least reduce it much further than the Democrats want. They have indicated that, until a deal is reached on the estate tax, they will block passage of the UI and COBRA extension. On Feb 24, Kyl, a long-time leader against the estate tax, said that Republicans will block consideration of the legislation unless they get "a path forward fairly soon" to voting on a measure to permanently weaken the estate tax.
Bizarrely, Senator Bunning blocked the unanimous consent motion for the $10.3 billion, 30-day UI and COBRA extension, saying he wanted the costs somehow offset, even while his Republican colleagues press for an estate tax measure that will cost hundreds of billions of dollars, with no hope of being offset.
Kyl and Grassley tried to cut a deal earlier this month with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) to get a fast track for the estate tax vote in exchange for votes on a jobs bill, but Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) rejected the package and put together a jobs bill of his own. That pared-down bill passed the Senate on Wednesday, including $16 billion in tax cuts for employers who hire new workers.
Another wrinkle is that Grassley and Kyl have reportedly been in discussions with Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) who has proposed to allow multi-millionaires to prepay their estate tax at a lower rate. This is clearly a accounting gimmick designed to mask the true cost of the estate tax change. It would bring some money into the Treasury during the 10-year budget window that Congress focuses on, but lose huge amounts of revenue in years after that. United for a Fair Economy has objected to the proposal in a letter to Senator Cantwell. Washington residents are urged to sign on to the letter.
Coalition Calls for More Robust Estate Tax than Approved by House Democrats
Congress needs to move in a different direction on the estate tax. Americans for a Fair Estate Tax, a coalition of organizations including Citizens for Tax Justice, has issued a call for an estate tax that exempts no more than $2 million in assets per spouse, and taxes the taxable portion of estates at a rate of at least 45 percent, with an additional 10 percent on assets in excess of $10 million. Only about 0.7 percent of deaths resulted in estate tax liability in recent years when the per-spouse exemption was set at $2 million.
Cutting the estate tax any more than this — particularly when Congress seems to have so much trouble helping the Americans who are struggling the most — would prove that Congress really does have its priorities completely backwards.