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Taxing Them Half to Death

Tax-the-rich talk is growing in Washington.

The nation's one-percenters must be having fits with all the talk from Democrats about taxing the rich, especially since Dems control the House of Representatives, the Senate appears in play in 2020, and their favorite president (or so he says) languishes in the polls.

Today, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a potential Democratic presidential candidate, introduced legislation that would dramatically increase the number of wealthy Americans subject to the estate tax.

I can hear the fat cats now bemoaning the evils of the "death tax," their favorite term for the tax on wealthy estates. For years lobbying organizations representing wealthy business owners have determinedly battled the tax, with the ultimate goal of outright repeal.

While they couldn't make that happen even with Republicans controlling both houses of Congress and the White House, the GOP-Trump tax law, passed in late 2017, raised the amount an individual can transfer before facing any estate tax to about $11 million, with couples able to pass on twice that much.

Sanders' bill would return the $11 million threshold to the 2009 level of $3.5 million, which Sanders said would affect only the wealthiest 0.2 percent of Americans.

For many years, I had trade association communications clients whose top legislative priority was to "Repeal the Death Tax." It was their rallying cry during their annual "Day on the Hill" lobbying events, where business owners and top staff go to Washington to beseech their representatives and senators on issues of concern, often holding fundraisers for "like-minded" lawmakers.

Frankly, it was hard for me to be sympathetic as I wrote the promotional material intended to justify repeal of that tax. I just kept telling myself, "Be a pro. Do what they pay you to do." It was another version of my favorite motto in those days, "You pay, we play."

Of course, Trump's tax plan helped quell those calls for death tax repeal as it tripled the threshold and satisfied many business owners who no longer would be subject to the tax.

But the death tax bill is only the latest in Democratic efforts to force the wealthy to help finance expanded health care for the American people, perhaps even some version of Sanders' "Medicare for All."

Last week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, (D-MA), a presidential candidate, introduced a "wealth tax" on households with a net worth of $50 million or more, which she said was estimated by leading economists to raise $2.75 trillion in tax revenue over a ten-year period.

"For decades, a small group of families has raked in a massive amount of the wealth American workers have produced, while America's middle class has been hollowed out. The result is an extreme concentration of wealth not seen in any other leading economy," Warren said in her announcement.

Rookie Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) proposed a 70 percent top rate on income over $10 million a year, sending further shudders across the millionaire set and making headlines.

“It’s not on all of your income. It’s on your 10 millionth and one dollar," she said on CBS' 60 Minutes. "So after you make 10 million dollars in one year, your dollars after that start to get progressively taxed at a much higher rate.”

Of course none of those Democratic proposals have a prayer of passing the Senate this year, even if they did clear the Democratic-controlled House. And, of course, Trump would be standing by with his veto pen. He has described the estate tax as “crushing,” “horrible,” and “unfair.”

Republicans are moving to counter the Democratic proposals. On Monday, three Republican senators including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), introduced an estate tax repeal bill, positioning it as a way to help farmers, ranchers and small business owners.

That would appear to set the stage for more "death tax" appeals by business groups, more fodder for their "Day on the Hill" agendas, and another solid campaign issue for Democrats as they head into 2020.

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