Death-Tax Showdown
Jude Wanniski
July 5, 2000


To: Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Congratulations on Cloture Petition!

Hurray for you, Trent! I heard from Karen Kerrigan of our Washington office that you have grabbed the bull by the horns on the death tax and filed a cloture petition on Friday. This means that unless you work out a satisfactory process with the Senate Democrats, the House-passed repeal of the gift and estate tax by 2010 will come to an up-or-down vote soon after Congress returns on Monday. You've been awfully patient with Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle and President Clinton, who clearly threw a monkey wrench into your plans Monday a week ago, when they announced they would swap their prescription drug plan for your plans to fix the marriage tax penalty. I was encouraged to see you say it was "silly" to be legislating in that fashion. This is especially so when it has become clear to anyone paying attention that the Democratic leadership never expected you to present a solid prescription-drug plan for seniors. They wanted you to vote against the Democratic plan and then go to the voters, while the Dems could beat up on you for being stingy and callous.

We are finally seeing from Republicans the kind of smart hardball we should have gotten when the voters turned the 104th Congress over to the GOP in 1994. Newt Gingrich was a disaster when it came to playing political chess with Bill Clinton and it has taken all this while for Republicans to recover from their wounds. The unanimous vote of House Republicans on H.R. 8, to repeal the death tax, was a breathtaking turning point. Bill Clinton and Al Gore trotted out their usual Robin Hood arguments, which usually frighten Republicans into retreat, but I'm thrilled to see the party has closed ranks on this issue and that Texas Gov. George W. Bush is also front and center, showing no fear that voters will punish him or the GOP for removing the 55 percent tax on the assets of husband and wife when they die. On this issue alone, if it is at the cutting edge, the GOP might just win both the White House and the Congress for the first time since Ike was elected in 1952 -- and promptly announced that he really did not promise to cut taxes!

What truly amazes me, Trent, is the deafening silence from the national press corps -- print and electronic media -- on this turn of events. The press corps has become so used to writing about the victories of the Democrats over the feckless and divided Republicans that there is mass confusion over this estate-tax issue. I hope you are aware that your bold thrust in filing a cloture petition on Friday did not make The New York Times -- either the Saturday paper or the Sunday “Week in Review.” Even more astounding to me, it did not make the Dow Jones news wire or the Bloomberg wire and was not mentioned in Monday's Wall Street Journal. If a tree falls in the forest with nobody there, Trent, the sound will not be heard. But when you file a cloture petition on a vote to end the death tax after 80 years on the books -- an action that gets the support of 80 percent of the people in public opinion polls -- it is incredible that both the political and the financial press have disappeared on a coffee break.

On page one of Tuesday's New York Times, here was a story, "Gore and Bush Agree on Basics, But Differ Sharply on Details," by Allison Mitchell. Surely it would mention the difference on the death tax, with the vote coming up next week, for goodness sakes. NOT A WORD, Trent. And I'm sure that it was not Allison Mitchell's fault. She doesn't know about it because she hasn't read about it in her own newspaper or in any other newspaper. Did we dream that it happened? No, we actually called Bloomberg and got confirmation that you had filed for cloture, but the fellow who checked, acknowledged they did not put it on their own wire.

If I were a political or financial reporter -- as I was for almost 20 years -- I would see that if the voters knew the vote was coming next week, they would be more likely to urge their senators and Senate candidates to vote for repeal. There are already enough votes to pass the Senate, with the hapless Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio the only Republican who refuses to cut tax rates of any kind. But to get a veto-proof vote out of the Senate, you need the eight Democratic co-sponsors to vote with you on cloture, or Senator Daschle will pile up so many amendments that he would kill the bill with a faux filibuster. Because President Clinton has threatened to veto, this is the moment of truth. Something big will happen next week, and unless he is careful, both Vice President Gore and Clinton's wife Hillary, the Democratic Senate nominee in New York, will find themselves on the wrong side of a popular issue. Yes, they will insist on Gore's plan to increase the exemption on family farms and small businesses to $5 million, but the country is saying it wants repeal, not the confiscation of family assets at any level, and that George W. Bush is confident of that.

Because the press corps is making believe none of this is going on, Trent, I think you really should offer yourself to the talk shows next Sunday to alert the nation that a big week is coming up. Yes, you will win either way, getting the legislation or, if it fails, keeping the issue for November. But having played it straight on prescription drugs for the seniors while the Democrats played games, you should go all out next week, even if in the end you force the president to sign the repeal and he and Al Gore take credit for having invented the idea. The country will know better anyway.