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Estate-tax repeal: a morality play

Proponents of keeping the tax view the issue as one of 'fairness and equity.'

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Tax disputes don't often turn so clearly into moral issues. Usually, legislators make tax choices along the lines of Jean Baptiste Colbert, a 17th-century finance minister of France's Louis XIV, who said: "The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest amount of feathers with the least possible amount of hissing."

Well, there's a lot of hissing right now over the estate tax. "There is a big moral dimension" in this tax, says Steve Ricchetti, cochair of the Coalition for America's Priorities, and a former deputy chief of staff for President Clinton.

The United States, he says, "was not founded on the principle of inherited wealth." Rather, the goal is a system with "basic fairness and equity" for all so that "hard work" can be rewarded with achievement, success, and prosperity.

The Republican leadership of the Senate plans a vote this month to permanently repeal it, or, more likely, shrink it drastically. Opposing TV ads will soon appear in states of undecided senators.

Last week, proponents of keeping the tax, seeing at stake $1 trillion in revenues over 10 years, held a press conference in Washington, D.C., to reveal a "multimillion-dollar lobbying effort" to repeal the tax. This effort, they said, is led by 18 "superwealthy families" with a total net worth of $185 billion. Eliminating the estate tax would save their heirs $71.6 billion on their huge estates.

Calling the lobbying effort "one of the biggest con jobs in recent history," Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, charged the families with relying on "deception to bamboozle the public and Congress, not only about who must pay the estate tax, but about how repealing it will affect the country." She accused them of masterminding "a fraud" on the public by selling repeal on the basis that the "death tax" will harm small business and small farms, and it does not.

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