GOP senator says comments on estate tax misinterpreted

A top Republican senator said Monday his comments were misinterpreted when he defended GOP efforts to scale back the federal estate taxes because it helps those who invest rather than people who spend their money on "booze or women or movies."

"My point regarding the estate tax, which has been taken out of context, is that the government shouldn't seize the fruits of someone's lifetime of labor after they die," Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley said in a statement. "The question is one of basic fairness, and working to create a tax code that doesn't penalize frugality, saving and investment."

The seven-term senator, a senior member of the Senate Finance Committee, made the comments about the estate tax late last week in an interview with the Des Moines Register. It has attracted attention since.

Grassley told the newspaper, "I think not having the estate tax recognizes the people that are investing as opposed to those that are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it's on booze or women or movies."

The estate tax affects a very small and very wealthy number of Americans, with only the estates of about 2 out of every 1,000 Americans who die facing the tax.

Under current law, when someone dies the estate owes taxes on the value of assets transferred to heirs above $5.5 million for individuals, $11 million for couples. The Senate bill doubles those limits but does not repeal the tax. The House bill initially doubles the limits and then repeals the entire tax after 2023.

House and Senate GOP negotiators are working out the differences between the two bills, with the goal of completing legislation that Congress can send to President Donald Trump before Christmas.

Farm-state lawmakers and other Republicans have long argued that the estate tax is a harsh hit on small businesses and family farms. The Tax Policy Center has estimated that only 80 small business and small farm estates nationwide will face any estate tax in 2017.

Grassley, in his statement on Monday, said he wants to ensure the tax code is as fair for "family farmers who have to break up their operations to pay the IRS following the death of a loved one as it is for parents saving for their children's college education or working families investing and saving for their retirement."

The Grassley comment immediately prompted a T-shirt from Raygun, which has stores in the Midwest, including Des Moines. The T-shirt read, "Spend every darn penny on booze or women or movies or have $11,200,000: The choice is yours, America!"