My colleague The Moose did a post this morning playing off fresh charges by the former deputy director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives that the administration took the whole faith-based project about as seriously as, well, “compassionate conservatism” in general.But nestled in the post was another subject on which The Moose and I share a healthy obsession: the scheduled demise of the federal estate tax, a.k.a, in Republican-speak, the “death tax.”The Moose specifically proposed reinstating a reformed version of the estate tax and dedicating the money to a real faith-based initiative. But aside from that particular idea, I think Democrats, as a matter of basic principle, ought to single out the estate tax repeal as a Bush/GOP outrage that must not be allowed to stand.This happens to be one issue where the standard lefty critique of centrist Democrats has some merit. At some point during the 1990s, the GOPers did some focus groups and discovered that sizeable majorities of voters didn’t like the idea of family farmers and small business owners getting hit with high-rate federal inheritance taxes when they were struggling to keep the farm or business in the family for the next generation. They also discovered that calling the inheritance tax a “death tax” pushed even more buttons. Nothing excites Republicans more than finding an issue where they can simultaneously win votes and richly reward their richest constituencies. So not suprisingly, abolishing the “death tax” became a standard feature of GOP tax proposals in the Age of Newt, bearing poisonous fruit when Bush took office amidst spectacular budget surpluses and got the chance to cut taxes.A goodly number of Democrats–especially those from marginal and/or rural districts–saw those polls and just flat-out caved (for the record, the DLC never did so, and in fact made the “death tax repeal” an object of particular hostility and derision). In fact, other than the so-called “marriage penalty” adjustment, repeal of federal inheritance taxes probably got more Democratic support in Congress than any other feature of the Bush tax package. That was then. This is now. And now Democrats should seriously consider making opposition to a permanent “death tax repeal” a signature issue. Why? Well, for one thing, repealing inheritance taxes strikes at the very heart of a long–and until recently, bipartisan–American tradition of progressive taxation in which the burden of self-government falls on wealth as well as work. (As The Moose often points out, Teddy Roosevelt was the father of the federal estate tax). There are three ways to get very, very rich. One is to earn it with actual work (a rare but not impossible feat). A second is to earn it through investment income. And a third is to inherit it. (A fourth, I suppose, is to marry it, perhaps more than once, but we’re not talking about Sen. John Warner here). A broad-based tax system should not mysteriously exempt the third source of enormous wealth, especially since it is the one that rewards birth-status rather than effort or initiative or good judgment, and that serves virtually no economic purpose. Moreover, truly dangerous and immoral concentrations of wealth often take generations to accumulate, with inheritances serving as the crucial link between economically rational and irrational–indeed, anti-competitive–consolidations of market power. To put it another way, accepting the abolition of inheritance taxes makes any consistent and progressive fiscal philosophy incoherent. We’re gonna tax high earners and small investors, but not big fat trust fund babies? Oh, really? Aside from the principles involved, I am convinced Democrats can turn public opinion around on the estate tax. The extremist abolitionism of the GOP on this issue makes it easy for Democrats to be reasonable, in a way that’s far more difficult in the complicated world of marginal rates on income. For years, most Democrats have supported a reform of the federal estate tax that would raise the threshold for applying it high enough to exempt virtually every legitimate small family farm or small business, and perhaps even lower the rates, which are significantly higher than for corporate or personal incomes. That would essentially return the estate tax to a simple, progressive purpuse: a tax on the inheritence of very large personal fortunes–a “billionaire’s tax,” to demagogue it just a little, in the spirit of “death tax.” Let the GOPers defend that, for a change. Pivoting public opinion on inheritence taxes will require the kind of sustained, loud Democratic attention that is currently being paid to Social Security privatization. But it’s worth it, both morally and politically. Repealing the estate tax is a central pillar of the GOP’s plan to eventually shift the federal tax base entirely from wealth to work, with the goal of not only “starving the beast” of government, but of turning heavily taxed people of modest means into anti-tax zealots while solidifying the Republican Party’s iron pact with the most privileged and powerful economic interests in the country. So: if and when the Beast of Bush’s SocSec proposal is slain or at least firmly caged, I nominate “death to the death tax repeal” as a Big Fight worth having, and winning.
TDS Strategy Memos
Latest Research from:
By Ed Kilgore
Watching an intra-Democratic argument on voting rights strategy intensify in Washington, I offered some advice to both sides at New York:
There has been an underlying disagreement within the mostly Democratic coalition favoring voting rights that was nicely captured in this New York Times report on Friday:
“A quiet divide between President Biden and the leaders of the voting rights movement burst into the open on Thursday, as 150 organizations urged him to use his political mettle to push for two expansive federal voting rights bills that would combat a Republican wave of balloting restrictions … In private calls with voting rights groups and civil rights leaders, White House officials and close allies of the president have expressed confidence that it is possible to ‘out-organize voter suppression,’ according to multiple people familiar with the conversations.”
Both sides in this argument are partly wrong. Those who expect Joe Biden to force the For the People Act or the John Lewis Voting Rights Act through the Senate via some major revision in the ability to filibuster are probably expecting the impossible. Yes, perhaps if Biden personally and insistently and abrasively lobbied Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema to abandon her very consistent defense of the filibuster, up to and including encouragement of a primary challenge to her when she is up for reelection in 2024, she might decide her current and very insistent independent-maverick “branding” isn’t going to keep working for her. But Joe Manchin? He would be thrilled to get attacked by a Democratic president or Democratic advocacy groups for insisting that he won’t support voting-rights measures unless at least some Republicans support them. His state is so very red that the threat of a primary challenge to the sole remaining successful West Virginia Democrat is a laugher.
Short of a nuclear attack on West Virginia, it’s hard to identify anything Biden might do to Manchin that wouldn’t run a high risk of backfiring. And he does need Manchin on the reconciliation bills Democrats are using to get around the filibuster to enact Biden’s social and economic agenda. It’s just too bad voting-rights bills don’t qualify for reconciliation.
Yes, it is intensely frustrating that Biden cannot bring himself to come out forthrightly for filibuster reform, but it probably doesn’t matter since it is not happening unless the Democratic Senate Conference gets bigger, making senators like Manchin and Sinema irrelevant on the subject. So at some point voting-rights advocates need to focus on that goal.
At the same time, White House claims that Democrats can “out-organize voter suppression” are partially wrong as well. Yes, restrictive provisions like voter-ID requirements, limits on voting by mail, and even voter-roll purges can be countered and perhaps overcome by intensive efforts to educate and energize the voters Republicans are trying to keep from the polls. But you cannot out-organize a partisan gerrymander, or a law that lets election officials or state legislators overturn the outcome of an election after votes are cast.
Voting-rights advocates will eventually have to play the cards dealt to them by the system as it currently exists. That means refraining from too much anger aimed at Democratic pols who have little choice but to concede defeat on some legislation and concentrate on legislation (i.e., those reconciliation bills with many items vital to the people whose voting rights are also under attack) they can enact with no margin for error in the Senate and little in the House. At the same time, Biden and his staff and Democratic “pragmatists” in Congress should never for a moment be cavalier about the legislative obstacles they face in defending democracy itself. They may have to accept a tactical defeat on voting rights in this Congress. But they should never, ever, give up on making it happen later if not sooner.