Much Ado About the Inheritance Tax | Replacing “Duke” | Corruption Investigation Widens

Repealing the Paris Hilton Tax—A dozen or so protesters gathered outside the Senate in early June, dressed as the grim reaper: black robe, white mask, scythe. “Bury the Death Tax,” their signs read. The invocation of death and taxes, they hoped, would prove particularly lethal. The movement to abolish a long-standing tax on inherited wealth, known as the estate tax, is perhaps an example of the conservative cause at its most deceptive.

After all, the estate tax is the most progressive tax in America, affecting far fewer than one percent of Americans. Anyone passing on less than $2 million pays not a penny of this tax. But conservatives have invoked the language of injustice and “double discrimination” in their quest to kill it. Anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist even likened the tax to the Holocaust. The spin worked. In 2000, 82 percent of gays and lesbians, the majority of them Gore voters, favored eliminating the tax. “A law that constituted the blandest kind of common sense for most of the twentieth century was transformed, in the space of a little more than a decade, into the supposed enemy of hardworking citizens all over this country,” Michael Graetz and Ian Shapiro write in Death by a Thousand Cuts: The Fight Over Taxing Inherited Wealth.

Eighteen of the richest families in America, worth a combined $185.5 billion, have spent lavishly on a PR campaign to repeal the estate tax, which would net them an additional $72 billion. Under current law, the tax expires in 2010 but reappears a year later. The House passed a permanent repeal in 2005, but on June 8 the Senate fell three votes short of the sixty needed to ratify the repeal. George Voinovich, one of two Republicans voting nay, called the repeal “incredibly irresponsible and intellectually dishonest.” Democrats, catching up in cleverness, invoked the universally loathed socialite Paris Hilton. As one ad put it, “The last thing a rich heiress needs is a $1 trillion raise in her allowance.”

Border Fight—Campaign slogans are usually inspirational and vague. Newly elected California congressman Brian Bilbray’s was anything but. “Proven Tough on Illegal Immigration” was his watchword. Bilbray won a special election held on June 6 in San Diego’s border district, to fill convicted Representative Randy “Duke” Cunningham’s seat. Bilbray succeeded by slamming a Senate immigration proposal he dubbed “amnesty” and exploiting his opponent Francine Busby’s last-minute comment that “you don’t need papers for voting.” By inflating the fear of illegal immigration, Bilbray was able to pull off a tricky maneuver, running against Bush and Republicans in Washington while simultaneously blunting Democratic critiques that electing a Republican to Congress would maintain an unacceptable status quo. “It wasn’t until I was able to highlight the fact that I did not agree with my friends in the Senate or my friend in the White House on amnesty that you really saw the polls start supporting me strongly,” Bilbray said after the election. The San Diego Union Tribune, in its endorsement of Bilbray, labeled immigration the “key issue” in the race.

Bilbray’s win may reveal an uncomfortable truth about the upcoming midterm elections. Good policy does not necessarily make for good politics, especially short term. A brewing backlash against recent immigration-rights protests could drive disaffected Republicans to the polls in November, even in districts far from the Mexican border. “The three biggest issues I’m hearing about is immigration three times,” said one GOP candidate for the Senate in Tennessee. Republican hard-liners are almost certainly on the wrong side of history. But that doesn’t mean they won’t hold or pick up a few seats in 2006 as a result.

Money Pit—The House and Senate Appropriations Committees decide how billions of dollars are spent in Washington each year. This year, their actions are beginning to attract long-overdue scrutiny from federal investigators. Duke Cunningham, who was a member of the House Appropriations Committee, has been convicted of demanding, and accepting, bribes from defense contractors, while five other members are currently under investigation. The biggest target is House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis, whom we wrote about in the June 1 issue. He’s accused of trading extensive legislative favors for personal ones. At least seven clients of a top lobbying firm linked to Lewis have received subpoenas from the FBI. Recently, its agents requested the financial records of Representative Ken Calvert, whose California district is adjacent to Lewis’s. Calvert happens to be the front-runner to take over the now-vacant Appropriations seat of Tom DeLay.