Trying to kill the 'death tax'

Jim Martin and the anti-estate-tax movement have come a long way since their early days.

When Martin first got involved in the movement, Rep. Chris Cox’s (R-Calif.) bill to repeal the tax had fewer than 20 co-sponsors in the House and no Senate sponsor. Martin is widely credited with successfully repackaging the repeal of the estate tax during the late 1980s and early 1990s. As Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, remembered, “He’s the guy, more than anybody else, who renamed it the ‘death tax.’”

Patrick G. Ryan

Jim Martin went into journalism after leaving the Marines in 1958.

Cox agreed, crediting Martin for persevering in his efforts. “Jim has waged a long and often lonely struggle to kill the death tax and its destructive impact on our economy,” Cox said. “He never wavered, and the tireless advocacy of this old Marine is a big reason the issue is now front-and-center.”

“It’s been a struggle,” said Martin, 69. At first, even a number of Martin’s colleagues were slow to pick up the new term. To cajole his employees into using the phrase, Martin instituted a beer fund — every time someone mentioned “the federal estate” or “generation-skipping transfer taxes” instead of the “death tax,” a dollar would go into the kitty.

Nevertheless, Martin freely admitted that estates, rather than deaths, are taxed. “I won’t pay it,” he lamented.

On April 13, the House passed H.R. 8, the Death Tax Repeal Permanency Act, by a 110-vote margin, 272-162. Forty-two Democrats backed the bill, including a number of members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Martin explained that some African-American lawmakers were swayed when they heard about the plight of minority-owned newspapers, some of which must be sold on account of the tax when the original publisher passes away.

The prospects of H.R. 8 within the Senate are less clear, however. Martin placed the whip count in the chamber at between 57 and 59 votes — below the 60 votes necessary for cloture, but close. “We’ll win this battle eventually,” he said.

Martin wasn’t always an anti-tax crusader. After leaving the Marines in 1958, Martin received a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Florida and parlayed it into a job covering the House for a syndicate of Southern newspapers and radio stations.

Martin remembers the period fondly.

“I’d come down to the White House just so I could tell my mom that I went to a White House press conference when Jack Kennedy was president,” he said.

Adept at developing messages, Martin left journalism in 1964 to join the staff of then-Rep. Edward Gurney (R-Fla.) — where he immediately set to the task of helping sell his boss and other Republicans to voters.

Martin explained, “Instead of our members doing these 30-minute ‘Congressman X Reports,’ which get played on midnight on Sunday night, I would do five Q-and-A [sessions] every week with my member. I’d tell him, ‘keep it to 30, 40 seconds, no more.’ Then the radio stations use the stuff at the 6 o’clock news and make them look good.”

Tom Reynolds, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said that Martin “understood early on the power good marketing has in the effort to sell conservative ideas.”

During Gurney’s successful 1968 Senate bid against former Florida Gov. LeRoy Collins (D), Martin was looking to expand the media team when the campaign manager, Jimmy Allison, gave him a call.

Martin recalled, “[Allison] said, ‘Listen, I’ve got somebody in mind.’ I said, ‘Who?’ He said, ‘The congressman’s oldest son, George, is getting out of Yale this week.’”

The congressman Allison was referring to was then-Rep. George Herbert Walker Bush (R-Texas), whose eldest son was reelected president last year.

Martin said hiring a future president is “kind of like hitting the lottery. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time for the right person.”

And Martin is still trying to help out the president. Martin serves on the board of CoMPASS — the Coalition for the Modernization and Protection of America's Social Security — a group lobbying for private accounts financed by a portion of the payroll tax.

“Something will happen this Congress,” Martin predicted. “There’ll be some legislation. You’ve got some pretty adroit people on the Hill on both sides that are working on this issue, whether it’s [Ways and Means Committee Chairman] Bill Thomas [R-Calif.] in the House or [Senate Finance Committee Chairman] Chuck Grassley [R-Iowa]. I’m cautiously optimistic because the president has zeroed in.”

Martin cited the fact that many Democrats have conceded that there is a problem facing Social Security. “It’s getting to the point where Democrats are being told we need to acknowledge there’s a problem, and let’s fix it,” he said. “So the president has been very successful in that way.”

Still, Martin admitted that the path to private accounts won’t be easy. “Everybody on the Democratic side has coalesced around this issue like none I’ve seen in 30 years,” he remarked.

What’s more, Martin believed that his side did not yet have its packaging of the plan perfected. “Here’s why it’s so hard to sell,” he opined. “You cannot, in a sound bite or two, explain what you’re trying to do.”

At the same time, Martin saw the message of AARP, and others as effective — though not always accurate, in his estimation.

“They have thrown fear into those who vote the most,” he said. “That’s us gray-hairs. And they’ve thrown fears with misinformation. … It’s not about us, but we’re the ones paying attention.”

Martin is not only working through CoMPASS to help forward the president’s Social Security plan. Harnessing the reported 4.5 million members of 60 Plus — which he sees as a conservative alternative to AARP, though the membership of his organization is less 15 percent of its larger rival — Martin is trying to create a grassroots groundswell of support for private accounts.

During one rally at which he spoke about Social Security reform, Martin recalled one senior citizen shouting out from the back of the hall, “Hey, you’re not that guy from Atlanta, are you?”

The reference was to CNN founder Ted Turner, to whom he bears a striking resemblance. That’s where the similarities end, however. Turner is a longtime Democrat.

“When my wife and I go to Atlanta,” Martin said. “The upside is we get the best seat in the house. The downside is everybody expects me to pick up the tab.”