Wealthy Heirs Have Estate-Tax in Cross-Hairs

4-26-06, 9:15 am

The Bush tax cuts for the rich didn't go far enough, says a lobbying effort spearheaded by the 18 wealthiest families in the country. According to a new report co-authored by Public Citizen and United for a Fair Economy (UFE), these families have banded together to secretly finance a campaign to repeal the estate tax.

Combined, this group of families have spent over $490 million since 1998 to finance 'a massive anti-estate tax juggernaut,' the report states, that could save them as much as $71.6 billion.

The 58-page report profiles the families and their businesses worth over $185 billion. They own or own large portions of such national and multinational corporations as Wal-Mart, Koch Industries, Amway, the Seattle Times, and Mars Inc., and make well-known products like Gallo wine, Campbell's soup, and M&M's. Also included among this elite is Richard ‘Dick' DeVos, who is currently using his huge personal fortune to fund his campaign for governor of Michigan.

Seven members of these families are closely tied to the Bush, administration as they served as either 'Pioneers' or 'Rangers' in the campaign, collecting $100,000 or $200,000 for his reelection bid. Some, like Dick DeVos, have strong ties to now-disgraced members of Congress such as former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX).

They have provided millions to outside groups in order to hide their ties to the campaign to repeal the estate tax. Some of these groups include anti-tax think tanks like the Club for Growth, the Free Enterprise Fund, and Citizens for a Sound Economy/Freedom Works. In addition to this, they have poured tens of millions into ad campaigns and lobbying efforts, the report points out.

The report also reveals that they have used their positions in national business and trade associations such as the Wine Institute, the Food Marketing Institute, the National Grocers' Association, and the US Chamber of Commerce to lobby for repeal of the estate tax.

According to the report, the campaign they have financed relies on fear-mongering and distortions of reality to advance their message. They claim that estate taxes drive small business into bankruptcy and are a burden on middle-class farm families. According to them, women and minorities are disproportionately affected, despite the fact that almost all of the members of the families behind this campaign are white, and most of the real power brokers are men.

Indeed, they claim that the estate tax is an unjust tax on the earnings of hard-working people. But, as the report finds, few of the members of the 18 wealthiest families actually earned any of the wealth they now possess. In fact, most of these families have been rich for generations, and individual members have inherited their wealth rather than working for it.

Their dishonest campaign has misled the American public by trying to create the impression that estate taxes large sections of society.

In the summer of 2005 a $7 million national ad campaign paid for by the Free Enterprise Fund and the American Family Business Institute claimed that due to the estate tax, 'When you die, the IRS can bury your family in crippling tax bills.'

The ad was exposed for this misleading claim by the Annenberg Project's website FactCheck.org, which pointed out that very few families actually are subject to the estate tax.

The truth, according to spokespersons for Public Citizen and UFE, is that only one quarter of one percent of all estates will owe any estate taxes next year. In fact, when challenged about the anti-estate tax campaign’s claims, the American Farm Bureau, a trade association influenced by members of these 18 families, could not identify a single instance where a family was forced to sell its farm due to owing estate taxes!

Calling the campaign to repeal the estate tax 'one of the biggest con jobs in recent history,' Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook remarked, 'This long-running, secretive campaign funded by some of the country's wealthiest families has relied on deception to bamboozle the public not only about who must pay the estate tax, but about how repealing it will affect the country.'

Claybrook and others spoke at a press conference announcing the publication of the report.

Lee Ferris, of UFE, urged voters not to 'let a handful of wealthy families sway Congress to twist the tax laws for their own benefit.'

The report predicts that if a repeal of the estate tax is passed, it will cost the federal treasury $1 trillion in the first ten years, an amount equivalent to recent projections of the total cost of Bush’s war in Iraq. With severe financial shortfalls in education, health care, disaster-preparedness, and ballooning budget deficits, giving a massive handout to the wealthiest families is a mistake.

Polls show that a large majority of people support keeping the estate tax. Even some wealthy individuals agree that it is part of their responsibility to pay their fair share of the tax burden.

Bill Gates Sr. told reporters that with wealth comes responsibility. 'The estate tax should be regarded as just paying back to the country for all the wonderful things it's made possible for the people who have that wealth,' he said. 'I don't think there's any great societal goal being served by inherited wealth,' he added.

Actor Paul Newman echoed this sentiment in a prepared statement: 'For those of us lucky enough to be born in this country and to have flourished here, the estate tax is a reasonable and appropriate way to return something to the common good. I'm proud to be among those supporting preservation of this tax, which is one of the fairest taxes we have.'

--Joel Wendland can be reached at