As the Senate considers repealing the federal estate tax, Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray face an onslaught of attack ads about an issue that's critical to our economic health but has been twisted and warped like few others. Their choice will be to continue to stand with most Washingtonians on values and priorities or to fall prey to the spin and deception coming out of D.C.
Lobbyists, unregulated conservative groups and The Seattle Times publisher hope to sway our senators with an expensive fear-mongering campaign telling voters that the estate tax will affect almost all of them. They will tell the public about hard-working families having to sell their parents' farms or small businesses being wiped out in order to pay estate tax bills, arguments seen in the "Vultures" TV ad that has been playing around the state.
Those emotion-laden anecdotes would be more persuasive if they were true. In reality, only the wealthiest one-fourth of 1 percent of all people who die in the United States in 2006 will pay any estate taxes. That leaves the other 99.7 percent of the public free to pass on 100 percent of their assets untaxed.
And the American Farm Bureau, a member of the anti-estate tax coalition, has been unable to cite a single instance where a family was forced to sell its farm because of estate tax liability. The same goes for small businesses, which have rarely faced taxation as the exemption rate on the tax has been increased.
If you have not heard those statistics before, it is no accident. A recent report published by Public Citizen and United for a Fair Economy shows how a handful of superwealthy families quietly have helped finance and coordinate a massive campaign to fool the American public and repeal the estate tax. Those 18 families, worth a total of $185.5 billion, have worked mostly in the shadows but they have names you've heard before: Walton, Gallo, Mars and, closer to home, Nordstrom and Frank Blethen (publisher of The Seattle Times). Collectively, those families stand to save a total of more than $70 billion if the estate tax is repealed.
Opponents of the estate tax also claim it inhibits entrepreneurship and punishes those who take risks to succeed. In fact, the vast majority of the superwealthy families behind the campaign became wealthy through inheritance and untaxed assets, not through their own hard work or innovation.
The policies advocated by estate tax critics conflict with the priorities of Washingtonians. As America faces ballooning budget deficits and a record national debt, it is irresponsible to provide new tax breaks for the wealthiest citizens. Studies show repeal of the estate tax would cost the government roughly $1 trillion over the first 10 years, roughly what it would take to provide health insurance for every uninsured American.
Proponents of full repeal have dubbed the estate tax the death tax to scare Americans. But local philanthropist Bill Gates Sr. prefers to call it a grateful heirs tax, one the wealthiest among us should be happy to give back to society in recognition of the public infrastructure, education and technology that made their families' success possible.
The estate tax is among the most progressive forms of taxation we have. It does not squeeze the rich or punish the successful, but as even Andrew Carnegie and Theodore Roosevelt said, it asks only that the wealthiest among us pay their fair share. A repeal of the estate tax would only increase the deficit and leave a larger burden on our children and grandchildren. That is bad policy and it goes against Washingtonians' values.
Senators must choose between the interests and welfare of 99.7 percent of Americans or a tiny group of the superwealthy. Our praise goes to Cantwell and Murray for continuing to see through the web of fear and deception and voting to preserve the estate tax.
Joan Claybrook is president of Public Citizen (www.citizen.org), a national citizen and consumer advocacy group in Washington, D.C. Dave Eiffert is the owner of Snoqualmie Falls Brewing Co. and is a supporter of United for a Fair Economy (www.faireconomy.org), a national non-profit organization. The estate tax report can be read at www.citizen.org/documents/EstateTaxFinal.pdf.
© 2006 The