His report described a self-fulfilling prophecy in which the IRS expressed no desire to update the figures because "consideration is being given to eliminating or reducing the number of people required to pay estate taxes." The last estimate was about $8 billion, but that figure is for the most part unreliable, he testified.
But the law still exists, regardless of whether an anti–estate tax agenda eventually succeeds in Congress.
"If a law is on the books, you still have to close down on the cheaters," said JJ MacNab, an estate planner who spent 18 years in the Bay Area working for tech clients. "If you don't enforce a law on the books, no one's going to have faith in the system."
MacNab now lives in Washington and as a hobby assists people who buy into tax-avoidance schemes that turn out to be illegal. She said these days, it's low-income earners who are likelier to be audited, a conclusion Johnston also came to in his 2003 best-seller, Perfectly Legal: The Covert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Super Rich — and Cheat Everybody Else. The book shows how the recent layoffs are a small part of a larger movement to weaken the IRS's investigative capabilities.
And that movement begins with those who can afford to fund it. Who are they? Well, they're not your average farmer.
Consistently during the debate over estate taxes, the GOP has co-opted the populist language that once dominated America's agrarian communities by claiming that the "death tax" bleeds poor farming families dry. It's a spectacular rhetorical tool, but it's an ugly distortion.
In fact, it's the nation’s wealthiest families who have led the charge to dismantle the estate tax, not its small farmers, according to an April report put together by two groups, Public Citizen and United for a Fair Economy. The analysis identified a handful of enormously wealthy families that stand to save more than $70 billion if their lobbying efforts succeed. And that lobbying effort, the report notes, has amounted to around $490 million in direct and indirect lobbying expenditures since 1998.
The list includes Ernest Gallo of the E & J Gallo Winery, based in Modesto, and John A. Sobrato of Sobrato Development, listed by Forbes as one of the largest commercial landlords in Silicon Valley, with a familial net worth of approximately $2 billion. The Gallo family is reportedly worth about $1 billion.
The rest of the list is in part a who's who of America's billionaires: Wal-Mart's Walton family; Charles and David Koch of the nation's largest privately held company, the Kansas-based Koch Industries (also benefactors of libertarian think tank the Cato Institute, founded in San Francisco); and the Dorrance family of the Campbell Soup Co.
Ernest Gallo's participation in antitax measures is particularly well documented. Elected officials he has supported with contributions in the past sponsored federal legislation in the ’70s and ’80s that allowed for millions of dollars in estate-tax exemptions for the Gallo family. One bill was even dubbed by estate-tax supporters the "Gallo amendment."
The Public Citizen report links the Gallos to anti–estate tax lobbyist Patricia Soldano and her Orange County–based Policy and Taxation Group (PTG), which has spent $4 million lobbying solely against the estate tax since 1998. While the authors are unable to pinpoint exactly how much the Gallos had given to PTG directly, both the Sobratos and the Gallos are listed as clients of the group. The Gallos have reportedly spent hundreds of thousands of their own dollars supporting individual candidates.
It's doubtful that very many people who actually paid estate taxes last year would know how to repair a grain harvester. In 2001, Johnston of the Times famously challenged the anti–estate tax American Farm Bureau Federation and the Bush administration to find just one example of a farm estate being sold to pay the taxes on it.