What is the estate tax and who does it benefit?
Rep. Suzan DelBene is among the small percentage of Americans who would stand to benefit from Republican proposals to repeal or dramatically reduce the number of families subject to the estate tax as part of the GOP tax plan.
And a McClatchy analysis shows that she is in good company in the House and Senate committees that have put together the tax overhauls.
Yet the Washington state Democrat voted against her financial interests, opposing the bill and voting to support a failed amendment that would keep the estate tax intact.
“None of the changes to the estate tax in the Republican’s bill would help middle-class families,” DelBene said in an e-mailed statement. “And what’s worse, it increases the deficit and leaves our children and grandchildren to foot the bill.”
An analysis by McClatchy calculated the net worth of lawmakers on the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees, which have been crafting the tax plans. The most conservative estimation showed at least one in eight of those committees' members could benefit personally from raising the exemption to or eliminating the estate tax, DelBene among them. But because the value of assets and liabilities are given not precisely, but within a range on the disclosure forms, the number of members in these committees who would benefit from the estate tax changes could be as high as one in four.
Nationally, only 1 in 500 estates are large enough to trigger the estate tax, or about 5,400 estates across the country, according to the left-leaning Center on Budget Priorities. The Center estimated that 90 estates in Washington would be subject to the tax in 2018.
McClatchy totaled the low and high values of each member’s assets and subtracted the highest possible value of their debts. Members of Congress aren’t required to include their personal residences among their assets, unless they derive any income, such as rent, from them, so McClatchy's likely is a conservative estimate of how many committee members be able to leave more money to their heirs if Congress enacts changes to the estate tax.
The 2016 financial disclosure for DelBene, a former Microsoft executive, showed that she and her husband Kurt, currently Microsoft’s Chief Digital Officer, have a net-worth of between nearly $28 million and $95 million, with extensive investment holdings. Because of how they have structured their assests, the totals in their case include the value of their homes in Medina, Wash. and the District of Columbia, which are worth between $6 million and $30 million combined.
The tax kicks in on estates with assets worth more than $5.49 million per individual, including retirement accounts and life insurance payouts. Any inheritance beyond that amount is taxed at 40 percent under current law.
Money donated to certain charities or left directly to surviving spouses isn’t taxed.
Republicans in the House want to phase out the tax entirely, which is estimated to cost $279 billion over the next 10 years, while senators have proposed doubling the threshold to $10.98 million per individual.
The House Ways and Means committee passed its version of the bill last week on a party-line vote. DelBene was among the Democrats who voted against it. That legislation is expected to get a vote in the full House on Thursday and DelBene said she plans to vote against it again.
The Senate's Finance Committee also is expected to vote on its version of the bill on Thursday.
The estate tax is just one element — albeit a very controversial one — of a massive tax overhaul effort by Republicans. Few lawmakers are likely to base their vote on the fate of that tax alone, regardless of whether it might benefit them or their heirs.
The GOP is pushing hard to pass a major tax overhaul before the end of the year. They're pitching their bills as a simplification of the tax code and relief for the middle class, as well as a spur to job growth due to corporate cuts. Opponents say not many middle class families would benefit, and point to loopholes and giveaways for corporations.
McClatchy Washington bureau reporter Lindsay Wise and interns Joseph Cooke and James Whitlow contributed.