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Estate tax playing unheralded role in revenue struggle

President Barack Obama won re-election in large part by calling for shifting more of the tax burden to higher-income people. The tax on inherited wealth – the estate tax – inevitably will play a role in getting to that goal since only wealthier people have taxable estates.

Yet the estate tax hasn’t figured prominently in Obama’s public pitches on tax equity. For example, Obama didn't mention the estate tax on Monday in his campaign-style speech in Redford, Mich., or in his weekly radio address in which he said, “We’re going to have to ask the wealthiest Americans to pay higher tax rates.”

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And he made only one fleeting reference to the estate tax during his three debates with Republican opponent Mitt Romney, who proposed eliminating the estate tax. That has long been a Republican goal and one which they achieved for just one year, 2010 – as part of the 2001-03 tax reform bills.

“The estate tax has been sort of a poor stepchild to the Bush tax cuts. It doesn’t get a lot of attention,” said Mike Lapham, project director of Responsible Wealth, a group organizing a push for a higher estate tax than Obama or congressional Republicans want.

At a time when Congress is searching for new revenue, there is revenue at stake here and it isn’t trivial.

If Congress doesn’t change the law, next year the top estate tax rate increases from 35 percent to 55 percent and it will be imposed on estates of more than $1 million, rather than on estates over $5.08 million as it now is.

If the currently scheduled estate tax increase takes effect, the revenue from it would be $37.6 billion in 2013 and $62 billion by 2019, according to an estimate by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, a Washington think tank.

Obama has put an estate tax offer on the table. In his fiscal year 2013 budget plan, he proposed a less burdensome alternative to the steep tax increase which takes effect Jan. 1. The president wants the tax to revert to what it was in 2009: a 45 percent tax rate, with the first $3.5 million of the estate exempted. His plan would raise about $20 billion in 2013 and $31.5 billion by 2019 – roughly half of the revenue raised by allowing the currently scheduled estate tax increase to occur.

Obama is getting some prodding from some of his own supporters to go further. On Tuesday a group of wealthy progressives organized by Lapham’s Responsible Wealth group – including former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, John Bogle, founder of the Vanguard mutual fund empire and Dr. Richard Rockefeller, great-grandson of Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller – urged Congress to enact a bigger estate tax than Obama wants.

Bill Pugliano / Getty Images

President Barack Obama speaks about the economy at the Daimler Detroit Diesel engine plant December 10, 2012 in Redford, Michigan.

They propose a $4 million exemption per married couple and a graduated tax rate starting at 45 percent – but with a top tax rate “to be determined,” Lapham said.

Since his group’s desired top rate is still undecided, he can’t estimate exactly how much revenue would be raised but Lapham said he didn’t think Congress would accept a top rate higher than 55 percent. “The reality is 55 percent makes some people squeamish,” he said.

Rubin led under the Treasury Department under President Clinton at a time of relative prosperity and declining federal budget deficits and even a surplus in 1999. He made the case that “a substantial estate tax would provide revenues at a time when our federal government badly needs these revenues to fund a sound fiscal regime, to fund public investment and to provide economic security.”

The federal government would spend the new revenues which flow in to the Treasury from a higher estate tax and that federal spending in turn would stimulate economic growth, Rubin said, rather than the money sitting in a savings account or other investment vehicle. “Wealthy people tend to spend a relatively small percent of their total income,” he said.

Rockefeller argued that a higher estate tax would “prevent the rise of a hereditary aristocracy.”

And Rubin argued likewise that the estate tax had to be higher than the one proposed by Obama because it “works to reduce concentrations of economic and political power across generations and those concentrations are antithetical to the basic premise, if you will, of the founding of our Republic which was it was a land of opportunity.”

The outcome here hinges not on men like Rubin, who is no longer in a position to bargain with congressional leaders, but with power brokers such as Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., who has announced that 2013 will be the year of a fundamental redesign of the entire tax code, something that hasn’t happened in more than 25 years.

While individuals, corporations, and lobbyists wait for that mega-event, in the short term, it isn’t yet clear if an estate tax “patch” – keeping the 2012 rate and exemption in place for next year – will be part of a year-ending bargain between Obama and congressional leaders.

“Sen. Baucus is working to protect Montana's family farmers and ranchers who pass their properties on to their children and future generations,” said Senate Finance Committee spokesman Sean Neary on Tuesday. “He supports the most estate tax relief he can get for these Montana families, which -- right now -- would be 2012 law.”