Who is Afraid of the Death Tax? Manipulating the Public to Change the Law

By Katharina Bauer

The estate tax law in the US is an institution that allows low discretion (tax codes are stated explicitly) and is subject to high veto power by both, president and congress. According to Mahoney and Thelen (2010) change to the tax law would most likely take place through “layering” (see Figure 1). However, the Republicans in the US aim to repeal the tax completely, which would mean “displacing” the law.

Figure 1 (Mahoney and Thelen 2010, 19 

Figure 1 (Mahoney and Thelen 2010, 19 

So far, this has been impossible since amendments to the tax law are subject to both, veto power of congress and the president. Thus, Republican attempts to repeal the tax law have failed repeatedly (Schaffner and Atkinson 2010). Winning voter support to repeal the tax is of great importance as both, president and congress are subject to direct elections. But, since the estate tax only applies to 0.2% of the Americans, gaining public support to force repeal of the tax is difficult. .

According to Greatz and Shapiro (2005) , Republicans have employed “framing” techniques to change public perception of the estate tax by relabeling it the “death tax”. Schaffner and Atkinson (2010) find that significantly more people exposed to the death tax frame, believed it applied to most families in America, rather than just a few families. This rendered the tax law less acceptable to the public and individuals favored its repeal.

Thus, Republicans attempted to “change the spirit of the law” by framing it as an “unfair tax imposed on most Americans”. Acknowledging public manipulability, renders strength of elected veto power unstable. This could in turn decrease predictability of institutional change within Mahoney and Thelen’s (2010) framework (Figure 1).