WASHINGTON ― Republicans say they want to reform the tax code for the greater good of corporate America, the broader economy and the middle class. Their tax legislation would also directly benefit a constituency usually omitted from GOP talking points: members of Congress themselves.
Since they pay taxes just like everyone else with six-figure salaries, lawmakers would benefit from the lower income tax rates in the bill, although some could end up worse off with the loss of certain deductions.
Some lawmakers would particularly benefit from proposed changes to the estate tax, which is a levy on the right of rich people to transfer their assets to heirs after death. The tax applies to a married couple’s estate if it’s worth more than $11 million and an individual’s estate worth more than $5.5 million. In a given year, only the richest 0.2 percent of estates meet that threshold.
But a lot of members of Congress are that rich. The median net worth of U.S. senators stood at about $3.1 million in 2015, according to personal financial disclosure data analyzed by the Center for Responsive Politics.
The House tax bill would completely repeal the estate tax, while the Senate version would roughly double the share of an estate exempt from the tax. House lawmakers have seemed willing to go with the Senate provision.
HuffPost asked several wealthy lawmakers if they or their colleagues considered their own personal finances when crafting the tax bill, particularly the estate tax provision. They said no.
“That’s not the way I do my job,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), adding that he supports policies with the best interests of the American people in mind.
Isakson was worth at least $9 million but less than $40 million according to his 2015 disclosures, which report the values of various assets within ranges. Assuming Sen. and Mrs. Isakson’s assets fall at least somewhere in the middle of the reported range, the Senate bill would allow $22 million of their estate to pass to their children untaxed, instead of just the $11 million under current law. The tax itself is a one-time 40 percent levy, so the policy change could save the Isakson family something like $4.4 million.
Of course, wealthy members of Congress, like other rich people, don’t necessarily have to worry about paying the estate tax at all, since it’s possible to reduce an estate’s taxable value through things like charitable donations. It’s also possible to avoid the tax altogether through creative accounting.
When HuffPost talked to Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who opposes the Republican bill, the intersection of policy and his own finances seemed to have never crossed his mind. “Have I thought about it? Uh, no,” he said.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), whose disclosures put his net worth somewhere between $13 and $59 million, said Republicans are only thinking about average Americans when they make policy.
“Most of us who’d like to see the death tax repealed are concerned about just the basic unfairness of double and triple taxing the same income and really inhibiting people from passing businesses and other things on to their kids,” Johnson told HuffPost.
Not everybody in Congress who supports killing the “death tax” is currently rich enough to benefit.
“I’m not worth $22 million,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), who took office this year and is not yet in the Center for Responsive Politics database. “I’m not even worth 10 percent of that.”
Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) said he wouldn’t discuss personal finances. His net worth is somewhere between $20 million and $89 million
Over on the House side, Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-N.J.), who is worth at least $21 million, said he actually had considered how the estate tax would affect him personally.
“I can tell you that I benefit from changing it and I oppose changing it at the same time,” said MacArthur, who only reluctantly supported the broader House bill. “It’s a matter of priorities and I think there are more important things to fund than just getting rid of it in its entirety.”
A full repeal of the estate tax would cost the government about $240 billion in revenue over 10 years. Since Republicans are crafting their legislation under self-imposed cost constraints, saving money with one provision ― or losing less revenue ― allows them to use those dollars on something else, such as a lower corporate tax rate or a larger child tax credit.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, said it’s ridiculous that Republicans are fussing with the estate tax at all considering that President Donald Trump pitched the tax bill as something that wouldn’t benefit the very rich.
“This is going to cost me a fortune, this thing, believe me,” Trump wrongly said last month. “This is not good for me.”
Wyden, who is worth at least $9 million, said he has never liked to analyze the motives of his fellow lawmakers.
“Members of Congress are certainly of considerably more means than the typical American,” he said. “That’s pretty obvious.”
Arthur Delaney co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast: