Without action in the lame duck Congress, the estate tax will rise from the dead on January 1 with a vengeance, the rate climbing back to 55% from zero this year. The exemption amount will revert to a miserly $1 million, unindexed for inflation, so more middle class taxpayers will get hit year after year.
President Obama and Congressional Democrats don't think this is a high priority, but voters do. A November Gallup Poll found that Americans think that keeping the estate tax "from increasingly significantly" is "very important" by 56% to 17% "not too important." That's more than think it is a priority to extend current tax rates (50%), extend jobless benefits (48%), ratify the Start treaty (40%) or let openly gay men and women serve in the military (32%).
Liberals are content to let the rate revert to 55%, with some moderate Democrats arguing for a 45% rate. Republican Jon Kyl of Arizona and Democrat Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas are pushing a compromise that would lower the top rate to 35% with a $5 million deduction. That rate is still 35 percentage points too high for our liking, but we'll take it as an alternative to the greedy political confiscation of more than half of the wealth built by someone who has saved over a lifetime. An estate of $5 million isn't all that much for a successful and thrifty business person with some real estate to accumulate over 50 or 60 years.
Mr. Obama, who professes to care about small businesses and jobs, should pay attention to new estimates by the Joint Committee on Taxation. The committee finds that reverting to the 55% rate with a $1 million exemption will tax roughly 10 times more small businesses and farms than would Mr. Kyl's proposal. A recent study by Doug Holtz-Eakin, the former director of the Congressional Budget Office, finds that the estate tax reduces savings and capital formation and forces family businesses to liquidate at the time of an owner's death, which puts hundreds of thousands of jobs in peril.