Let the Death Tax Rest In Peace!

While the Senate is busy debating a Washington takeover of health care this week, the House will consider outrageous legislation that is getting much less attention: a bill to keep the death tax and make it permanent. The bill, H.R. 4154, would bring the death tax back to life less than a month before its scheduled repeal at the end of this calendar year.

Back in 2001 Congress repealed the death tax with a long phase-out that finally ends this year. Because of a Democratic filibuster, they could only pass the repeal temporarily, for one year in 2010, before the tax returns in full force in 2011. The political calculation was that once the tax finally reached repeal, it would be very difficult to bring it back, especially in an election year. That’s exactly why Democrats are now trying to make the death tax permanent now, with the clock ticking down to repeal on January 1.

The death tax is fundamentally a moral issue. Americans do not believe that death should be a taxable event. The Founders of our country believed this so strongly that they included a clause in the U.S. Constitution that forbids seizing an estate at death as a punishment for treason. Yet we now have a majority party that thinks it’s appropriate to take up to 45 percent of everything a person leaves to his children as a punishment for success, for achieving the American Dream.

The death tax punishes virtue and rewards vice. It tells older Americans: "You can't take it with you, and you can't leave it to your kids." So it discourages the traditional American virtues of hard work and thrift, savings, and investment, while it encourages lavish, reckless consumption.

Morality aside, the tax is bad economics. A new study conducted by former Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Holtz-Eakin for the American Family Business Foundation quantifies the economic damage wrought by the death tax, finding that repealing the tax would create 1.5 million new small business jobs. Dr. Holtz-Eakin found that repealing the tax would increase small business capital by more than $1.6 trillion, expand payrolls by 2.6 percent, and shave 0.9 percent from the unemployment rate.

With numbers like that, repealing the death tax should be at the top of the “jobs agenda” for the White House and Congress. Instead we see a rush to reverse the scheduled repeal and keep the tax permanently. It’s not because of the cost—the tax is almost certainly a net revenue loser for the federal government, with many studies showing that the revenue increases from other taxes would more than offset the costs of full and permanent death tax repeal.

The only real winners in the push for H.R. 4154 to keep the death tax permanently are the life insurance industry, which makes a fortune selling life insurance policies to families who have no other way to pay the tax without losing the family business. A study by Palmer Schoening of the American Family Business Foundation found that the life insurance industry books about $15 billion a year in premium revenue as a result of the death tax, and has spent upwards of $22 million this year alone lobbying Congress to keep the death tax. They also made hefty campaign contributions to all of the key players, including House Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel of New York and Earl Pomeroy, the North Dakota Congressman who is the lead sponsor of H.R. 4154.

The bottom line is the death tax is morally and economically bankrupt, and the effort to keep it permanently, when we are just weeks from it finally being repealed, must be defeated. With all the taxes being proposed lately it sometimes feels like Washington wants to tax us to death. They should at least be so kind as to allow death itself not to be a taxable event.

Mr. Kerpen is director of policy for Americans for Prosperity. He can be contacted through Phil Kerpen.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.  His free two-minute Podcast is available daily.