Dems face big questions on tax plans for 2020
Trump tax story prompts calls to revise estate rules
Democrats are calling for changes to the estate tax following a bombshell news report detailing how the Trump family navigated the tax code to protect the family's financial assets.
"The whole tax code is riddled with giveaways to folks at the top," said Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore), the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee. "What I think everybody has seen, certainly, in the article, is that the president's family was looking at using every dodge in sight, and people need to understand when the folks at the top use those dodges, that ripples all the way to the tax bills of the middle class."
The New York Times on Tuesday published an investigative article that said President Trump and his father, Fred Trump, used questionable and potentially fraudulent methods to avoid paying high estate taxes, saving them millions of dollars.
The White House has said the story is false, though it did not dispute specific elements in the article, many of which were presented with newly uncovered documents, such as Fred Trump's tax filings. The president's father died in 1999.
Democrats, who are favored in November to take control of the House but have a much smaller chance of winning the Senate, say the Trump family's story is emblematic of wider problems in the tax code.
"We need to look at the estate tax and certainly the issue that is raised by this investigation about the undervaluation of assets and gifts and the use of the various devices," Rep. Lloyd Doggett (Texas), the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Tax Policy, who called for hearings on the matter.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said it was time to reexamine the loopholes.
"We have to look at that story - it seemed pretty detailed in its depth - and think about whether any tax avoidance, tax evasion, loopholes that exist should be closed," he said. "Because there's no reason to have a tax provision if, in essence, you can ultimately evade it or avoid it with relative ease."
Tax experts say two issues stand out in the Times article. The first deals with asset valuation.
"The whole game around trying to lower estate taxes is to lower the valuation of the assets of the estate, and you can see from that New York Times piece that there were so many valuation games going on," said Steven M. Rosenthal, senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center.
One loophole that helps estates lower the valuation - and thus the tax bill - of their assets is based on minority ownership. The idea is that a controlling share is more valuable than a minority share, so families split up shares in a way that makes it seem like only a minority share is being handed down. They can then reduce the valuation of the asset accordingly.
In August 2016, President Obama introduced regulations to try to crack down on the practice; after Trump took office, the Treasury Department scrapped them. Tax experts, however, note that many of the methods cited in the Times article were already in breach of existing rules.
The second issue that the Times article illustrates, they say, is the need for better enforcement of existing laws.
"A lot of those things in that article are already illegal and were illegal when they happened. They just required enforcement," said Beth Kaufman, president of the law firm Caplin & Drysdale, who specializes in estate planning.
But enforcement has dropped off in recent years.
The IRS budget has plummeted more than $800 billion from 2010 to 2017, a period that saw its workforce drop by 19 percent.
In that same period, criminal cases pursued by IRS tax enforcement fell by nearly a quarter since 2010, according to The New York Times, as the IRS budget has been slashed.
A Government Accountability Office study in 2003 estimated that every dollar spent on IRS enforcement can return as much as $13 to the U.S. Treasury.
While this week's Times story helps shed light on the problem, Democrats say their interest in closing the loopholes are not new.
Wyden last year issued a report examining estate tax loopholes.
Last week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) introduced a housing bill that included estate tax reforms and rate increases as a pay-for.
But some are skeptical that things will change much, even if Democrats take control of Congress.
"I believe that this has been a problem through periods where either party was in control and it didn't get resolved," Kaufman noted.
Naomi Jagoda contributed to this report