On June 26, 2013, LGBT Americans across the country were celebrating the historic Supreme Court opinion issued by Justice Anthony Kennedy overturning the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the pernicious law signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996 that prevented the federal government from recognizing same-sex civil marriages.
The LGBT conservatives of Log Cabin Republicans were among the revelers — not only because the decision affirmed our organization’s longstanding constitutional commitment to marriage equality, and not only because the decision was authored by a Justice appointed to the nation’s highest court by the rightly lionized conservative legend President Ronald Reagan; but also because in enumerating the reasons why DOMA was wrong, Justice Kennedy shined a spotlight on what is perhaps one of the greatest inequalities in the federal tax code: the estate tax — more euphemistically (and rightly) known as the “death tax”.
It’s time to repeal this monstrosity once and for all.
Edith Windsor’s standing in court was due to her unfair treatment by the Internal Revenue Service — specifically, a $363,053 tax invoice she was issued following the passing of her longtime wife Thea Spyer in 2009. At the time, New York State recognized their same-sex union, but the federal government did not. And even then, because New York’s estate tax rules followed federal guidelines, Ms. Windsor was required to pony up an additional $275,000 to the taxman in the Empire State. The total bill came to $638,000. Pure applesauce!
Thus started four years of lawyering — all because of a tax rooted in inequality, unfairness, and — in the case of Edith Windsor — discrimination.
Log Cabin Republicans opposition to the death tax goes back over a decade. In general, anything that makes taxes simpler, fairer, and lower is in line with our principles as LGBT conservatives and straight allies, but the death tax in particular has been a centerpiece of Log Cabin Republicans advocacy for reasons the Windsor case made abundantly clear.
Ours is not an outlier position. A Fox News poll from only two years ago showed a resounding 71% of the general public is opposed to the death tax — citing their view that what amounts to double-taxing of family income by the federal government is “unfair.” When asked by the Kaiser Family Foundation, National Public Radio, and Harvard University, “Do you favor or oppose completely eliminating the estate tax, that is, the tax on property left by people who die,” 60% responded, “Yes!” With numbers like that, it shouldn’t be difficult for politicians in Congress of all partisan persuasions to see that repeal of the death tax (much like support for marriage equality) is a political winner.
The current plan under consideration by Republicans in the House of Representatives, dubbed the “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act,” calls for gradually euthanizing the death tax by phasing in an increased exemption rate in advance of a total repeal by 2024. Some in the GOP believe that doing away with the death tax would be better achieved by immediate repeal rather than measured elimination, but now is not the time to make the perfect the enemy of the good. Anything that moves the country closer to finishing off this malevolent mess is something good conservatives should welcome.
Justice Kennedy’s opinion relegating DOMA to the dustbin included an order to the Treasury Department “to pay money that it would not disburse but for the court’s order.” Including interest, that final amount represented over $680,000 reimbursed to Edith Windsor that should never have been absent from her bank account in the first place.
It’s been more than a century since the enactment of the death tax. In that time it has done exactly one good thing: compelled the federal government to recognize same-sex unions — an unintended, though welcome, consequence of its passage. But the days of the death tax paying dividends to the LGBT community are a thing of the past.
It’s time to make the death tax a thing of the past, too.
Commentary by Gregory T. Angelo, the national president of Log Cabin Republicans.
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