Bring Back the Estate Tax Now
With a host of other issues behind it, Congress is finally turning its attention to the expiring 2001 and 2003 tax cuts. But there is one tax issue that should have long since been addressed: the federal estate tax. That tax expired at the end of last year, and there have been no estate taxes levied this year. If a new estate tax is not enacted as soon as Congress returns from its August recess, this void will continue until the end of the year.
We would recommend continuing 2009's regime, with a top rate of 45% and a $3.5 million individual exemption. Small businesses and family farms can be protected both through the exemption (which is $7 million for a couple) and through special deferred payment rules.
We both believe that the estate tax should be a component of any federal tax system. Our government is always going to collect and rely on tax revenues to pay for the activities that our citizens want and need government to perform. A key criterion in choosing taxes is to have the least negative impact on economic activity. The estate tax, in our opinion, meets that test.
An estate tax can provide revenue—with little, if any, adverse supply-side economic impact—to fund deficit reduction, additional public investment or added assistance to those affected by the economic crisis. Used for public investment that has a rapid spend out, or applied to assistance for economically displaced citizens, the net effect will be to increase demand. That's because roughly 100% of the funds would be spent, while part of any large inheritance is highly likely to be used for savings or debt repayment. And either deficit reduction or public investment will better position our country for future economic success.
We also share the view that the estate tax is grounded in powerful philosophical underpinnings. Our nation views itself as a meritocracy and a land of opportunity and we have a proud legacy of upward mobility. An estate tax helps us promote this legacy, by avoiding the accumulation of inherited economic—and political—power that is antithetical to this historical vision of our society and to the vitality and dynamism that has contributed so much to our success.
Failure to restore a permanent and strong estate tax for this year has already cost billions of dollars in federal revenue. But there is still time for Congress to take action for the current year. By acting immediately, Congress can, at a minimum, solve the revenue problem the lapse has created for the remainder of the year. It could also consider going further by making the change apply from the beginning of this year.
Ordinarily in tax matters, the effective date would not precede the date of enactment, or at least the date that a measure was introduced, because Congress knows that taxpayers make their plans based on the existing code. But in the case of the estate tax, presumably nobody's demise was affected in timing by the structuring of our tax laws. And importantly there has been notice—through the president's budget and statements by public officials—that a tax would be enacted earlier this year that would apply to the whole of this year.
The question of how to address the income and other tax cuts that expire this year is already eliciting many conflicting views. But action on the estate tax should not wait. Our country is losing revenue that, with its stressed fiscal conditions, it can ill afford to forego.
Mr. Rubin is co-chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations and former secretary of the U.S. Treasury. Mr. Robertson is chairman of Tiger Management LLC.