July 10, 2008

Earlier this year (March 13, 2008), the Senate voted on four amendments to the estate tax that were filed as a part of the budget resolution debate. As background, the budget resolution gives Congress non-binding fiscal guidelines for the upcoming year. These budgetary guidelines are passed by a simple majority, rather than the 60 votes it takes to survive a filibuster and pass a bill. Given the non-binding nature of the budget resolution and the amendment, they can only serve as an indication of what the Senate might do when voting on actual estate tax reform legislation.

Senator Baucus (D-MT) proposed the first amendment, which prevents the estate tax from rising above the 2009 levels ($3.5 million exemption and a top estate tax rate of 45%). Senator Baucus’ amendment passed the Senate with a vote of 99-1.

Senator Caucus’ amendment was followed by an amendment proposed by Senator Graham (R-SC) that provided for a $5 million exemption and a maximum estate tax rate of 35%. The Senate voted against this amendment 47-52.

Senator Ken Salazar (D-CO) introduced an amendment that was “revenue neutral,” by setting aside reserve funds in order to reach a $5 million exemption with a 35% maximum estate tax rate. The Salazar amendment failed by a vote of 38-62.

The final amendment was proposed by Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and it set the exemption at $5 million with an estate tax rate of no higher than 35%. Senators Lincoln (D-AR) and Landrieu (D-LA) joined the Republicans in the voting with Senator Voinovich (R-OH) voting with the Democrats. This amendment failed with a 50-50 vote because the Vice President was not present to break the tie.

The Senate Finance Committee also held the second of three planned estate tax hearings, this one discussing the inheritance tax regime versus the current estate tax regime. While none of the Senators present seemed receptive to the idea of an inheritance tax, all of the witnesses at the hearing expressed philosophical support for wealth redistribution through an inheritance tax system.

Despite the national attention given to estate tax reform in general, there has been a dramatic reduction in the number of estate tax returns filed. The IRS Statistics of Income Bulletin (IR 2007-153) indicated that in 2005, when the estate tax exemption was $1,500,000, the number of estate tax returns filed fell by 58% to about 45,000 returns, down from about 108,000 returns filed in 2001. The total amount of assets represented by those returns fell by 14% to $185 billion in 2005 and from $216 billion in 2001.