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Public Statements

Estate Tax

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT

Mr. WHITEHOUSE. Mr. President, Senator Brown and I have come to the
floor today to talk about the estate tax. Today's discussion was prompted by a recent New York Times report that an estate of a Texas natural gas tycoon--Mr. Duncan of Houston--is worth $9 billion. That is a nine with nine zeros after it. It is a big number, and it is going to go without tax to his heirs. Without any tax at all. It is hard to know what his tax planning is, but if the ordinary rates applied, the tax that would be paid by this estate might be as much as $4 billion.

I think it is important to put that in counterpoint with the discussion we have been having on the floor today, where our friends on the other side of the aisle are blocking unemployment insurance for Americans who, through no fault of their own, lost their jobs. Because of what Wall Street did to wipe out the economy, they are out there on their own. They can't find work. In Rhode Island, we have 70,000 people unemployed in our small State. Our unemployment rate is 12.3 percent. And if you don't have unemployment insurance to protect you at a time such as that, you are stuck. Unemployment insurance goes to pay for food. It goes to pay for gas in the tank, to look for the next job. It goes to pay for shoes for your children. It goes to pay for clothing and rent and heat or electricity--all the basics. They are blocking it. They are blocking it because it is not paid for, as if this were not an emergency.

But they are perfectly happy--in fact, we haven't heard a peep out of them--with the Duncan estate going tax free to his heirs. I don't know how many of them there are, but if there are any less than nine, they all just became billionaires, tax free. That is the kind of contrast that is so remarkable about this building. We have an entire party that is dedicated to preventing working people, who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own as a result of this economic meltdown, from getting unemployment insurance, and that has actually already expired and we are trying to backfill it for that period, but they are completely satisfied with an oil tycoon worth $9 billion having his estate go completely tax free to his heirs. That situation is happening because of a glitch in the Tax Code that we could not fix. It is part of the Bush tax cuts having run to their conclusion.

The estate tax goes back to 1789 in its first incarnation. It has been permanent since 1916. John D. Rockefeller paid estate taxes in 1937 when he died. He was taxed at a 70-percent rate. Today, we are having a debate about whether we should continue at a rate of only 45 percent. The Duncan estate went through at zero percent.

This cut, which took $4 billion out of the economy to pay this one family with a tax-free estate, was pushed through by the Republicans using reconciliation. If you have been listening on the floor, you have heard a lot of critique about what a terrible procedure reconciliation is when it is used to do anything to help regular Americans. But when it comes to cutting the estate tax so that the Duncan family can have a $9 billion estate pass tax free, well, that is a perfectly fine use of reconciliation, according to our Republican friends.

At this point, at exemption levels of $3.5 million per individual, $7 million per couple, only a few thousand estates each year pay any estate tax at all. It is a tax that only hits not the rich but the superrich--the billionaires, such as the Duncan family. And while we are in this period of economic turmoil, while we are in this period where one party is trying to keep regular workers from getting access to unemployment insurance in the middle of this economic disaster, they are all for an unpaid-for zeroing out of the estate tax so that a $9 billion estate passes completely tax free.

I think that is wrong. I think it shows priorities that are completely topsy-turvy--completely upside-down. I know that Senator Brown wanted to join me, and I have gone on for a bit, so I will quiet down for a second so he can be heard. But it is immensely frustrating that that is the priority around here--let the working family lose the basic paycheck that holds the family together but have the billionaires get $9 billion tax free.

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Mr. WHITEHOUSE. Two points I would like to make. One is echoing what Senator Brown just said. We always hear about the debt and the pay-for from the other side when it is convenient, when they are trying to stop something the administration wants to do. When it helps regular people who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own, then it becomes an international incident if it is not paid for. But when an estate of $9 billion is allowed to pass tax free because of a loophole, that is OK. That is a $4 billion unpaid-for loss to the government, through its revenues. That is just fine.

There is a disconnect there. If you are serious about the deficit, you have to be serious about it when it is billionaires and not just serious about it when it is regular working families. There is a one-sidedness and a convenience for their concern about the deficit. When it is their President in the White House, Katey, bar the door. By my calculation they blew $9 trillion during the Bush administration. Now they suddenly have had an epiphany about debt, but it does not quite extend to billionaires who are allowed to pass their estates through tax free. So much for the debt and the pay-for concern.

The other group they are very concerned about all the time is corporations. In this year, corporations have paid less tax compared to humans than ever before, since 1983, where there was a glitch and corporations paid less taxes relative to what humans pay than now. But other than that, 1 year, 1983, more than a quarter of a century ago, corporations are paying an all-time low in taxes compared to what humans pay.

If you go back, it is 70 years--1983 was just a 1-year exemption. So all this battle has driven down tax rates for corporations, tax rates for billionaires, and here we are with a deficit and they do not care about the billionaires.

I will close. I see the majority leader on the Senate floor, and I do not want to take time. I will close. America is a place of which we are very proud. It is the greatest country ever. It is a place where people can get fabulously rich. Not only is it a place where you can get fabulously rich, when you get fabulously rich you can still live a relatively normal life. You don't have to live like some Third World thug behind armed guards driving around in convoys with armed SUVs. You can live a normal life as a very rich person.

Everybody has a chance to get rich. Everybody has a chance to become a millionaire, a multimillionaire, a billionaire. But when they do, they have to pay their share.

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