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Republicans File to Repeal a Tax That Only Affects the Richest 0.1 Percent

Republicans are seeking to close the loop on tax avoidance for the ultra-wealthy.

Sen. John Thune speaks after a Republican policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol on March 28, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

The vast majority of the Senate Republican caucus united last week to introduce a bill that would permanently repeal the estate tax, targeting one of the few provisions in the U.S. tax code that solely affects the richest 0.1 percent of Americans.

Led by Sen. John Thune (South Dakota), the top Republican on the Senate Subcommittee on Taxation and Internal Revenue Service Oversight, 40 Republicans reintroduced their bill to ensure that ultra-rich individuals seeking to hand off tens of millions of dollars — or more — to their heirs can do so completely tax-free. The extremely regressive proposal has been a longtime goal of Republicans, who have already massively watered down the estate tax in past years.

Currently, the estate tax threshold is $12.9 million, and nearly $26 million for couples. Amounts under this are exempted from taxes. This is nearly triple the threshold from 2016 and earlier, as Republicans more than doubled the estate tax cutoff in their major tax overhaul in 2017. The threshold is now so high that it is estimated that less than 0.1 percent of Americans are subject to the tax.

Evidently, these tax cuts are still not enough for Republicans, who had tried to repeal the tax altogether in 2017. In a press release on the bill, Thune, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) and Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) attempted to couch their support of the repeal in efforts to supposedly support farmers — claims that reveal themselves to be a farce when more closely examined.

“For years I have fought to protect farm and ranch families from the onerous and unfair death tax,” Thune said. “Family-owned farms and ranches often bear the brunt of this tax, which makes it difficult and costly to pass these businesses down to future generations.”

Thune’s statement is a misrepresentation of the truth. The vast, vast majority of “family-owned farms” are not subject to the estate tax. In 2020, a mere 0.16 percent of farm estates owed the tax, according to data from the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This is an exceedingly small number of farms. As the Tax Policy Center estimated, only 50 farms total paid any estate tax in 2017, and this research was done before lawmakers doubled the threshold.

The criticism of the estate tax in defense of farmers is disingenuous for another reason, as pointed out in a blog post this week. The tax code “already has provisions that protect the very few families with farms and businesses subject to estate tax,” wrote Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow and senior adviser for Patriotic Millionaires Bob Lord. “If the bill sponsors truly cared about family farms, ranches, and businesses, they could have proposed legislation to expand these protections but leave the estate tax intact.”

In reality, deep-pocketed lobbyists with the Farm Bureau have long been pushing a repeal of the estate tax — and the group’s deep ties to big business and Wall Street are well documented.

Perhaps not coincidentally, repealing the estate tax would complete the loop of tax avoidance for the wealthiest Americans. The bill targets the “die” part of “buy borrow die,” a common tax dodging scheme used by the wealthy to avoid paying taxes; it is part of the reason that the wealthiest Americans are able to pay little to no taxes year over year.

In the practice of buying, borrowing, and dying, the rich first pour their wealth into assets like stocks, building up a large portfolio. Those assets are then used as collateral for taking out large loans with low interest rates — lower than, say, the income tax rate — that become a wealthy person’s spending money. Then, they die, and hand off their wealth to the next generation, maintaining their dynasty for decades to come.

At very few points do taxes come into the buy, borrow, die equation. Buying and keeping stocks doesn’t incur a tax bill. Taking out loans allows the wealthy to claim very low incomes to skirt income taxes. The estate tax is essentially the only guarantee, and even then, the wealthy have come up with extreme loopholes to dodge the estate tax, too. Republicans, then, are hoping to make tax avoidance even easier by legalizing it entirely; Lord has pointedly labeled the bill the “Billionaires Pay Zero Tax Act.”

The proposal stands in sharp contrast to progressives’ views on taxation. Pointing to extreme and growing wealth inequality, progressives have been calling for increasing taxes on the rich and specifically targeting their wealth and stock portfolios, rather than endlessly allowing the “buy” and “borrow” portions of the cycle.

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