When our wealth gap gets so wide that Mitt Romney starts calling for a new focus on economic inequality, you might assume a trickle-down effect to others in his party. The politics of the issue, after all, are clear and getting clearer: A supermajority of Americans are dissatisfied with income and wealth distribution, including 54 percent of Republicans. Yet while GOP presidential contenders are signaling they recognize the problem and will seek to address it in their 2016 campaigns, House Republicans are evidently taking longer to get the message. Today, 233 of them —along with 7 Democrats — lined up to approve a full repeal of the estate tax, a measure that would benefit about 5,400 taxpayers a year, or roughy 0.2 percent of survivors, while costing the Treasury $269 billion over a decade.
The vote was symbolic. Senate Democrats (minus West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin) and President Obama remain opposed to a repeal, ensuring it won’t advance any further than it did today in the foreseeable future.
But the House Republicans’ push, timed to coincide with Tax Day, made a damning statement about their priorities. In a USA Today editorial Thursday, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), called the levy “an immoral tax and an attack on the American dream. Too often, it forces families to sell the farm, ranch, or business they've spent a generation or more building — just to satisfy the IRS.” The claim isn’t supported by the facts. In 2013, only about 20 farms and small businesses were subject to the tax, according to an estimate by the Tax Policy Center. Pressed by the Washington Post’s Fact Checker, staffers for Sen. John Thune (D-S.D.), another outspoken critic of the tax, couldn’t identify a single instance of a family forced to sell a farm in order to pay the piper.
Republicans can thank their own effectiveness for shrinking the population subject to the burden. Their decades-long campaign against the toll they call a death tax has succeeded in chipping away at its reach. As recently as 2001, the code exempted $675,000 of an estate from the tax before imposing a top rate of 55 percent. Today, thanks to a deal Senate Republicans negotiated with the Obama White House in a year-end tax package back in 2010, individuals can exempt up to $5.43 million of an estate, or $10.86 million for couples, and pay a top rate of 40% on the rest. Among the groups leaning on lawmakers to roll back the tax: an association going by the nothing-to-see-here name of the Policy and Taxation Group, which has reportedly drawn support from a handful of super-rich families, including the Gallos, the Kochs, Mars’, and the Waltons. If Congressional Republicans think that’s the crowd most in need of a break this tax season, they should probably get out more.