The House has taken a lot of big votes in the 11th Congress--the stimulus, health care, cap and trade--and we don't typically think of the Estate Tax as one of its more significant actions.

That's probably because what happened with the Estate Tax was pretty convoluted.

In 2001, Republicans repealed it...for one year...and that year was 2010. Under a bill passed in 2001, the Estate Tax was supposed to stop existing in 2010, then go back into existence in 2011 at its pre-2001 levels. That Republican bill lowered the rates and upped the exclusion significantly over the years. Starting at a maximum rate of 60 percent and an exclusion of less than $1 million in 2001, the rate fell to 45 percent and the exclusion rose to $3.5 million in 2009. (See a Congressional Research Service report for more info on this.)

Seeking to get ahead of the scheduled no-Estate-Tax year of 2010 and the Estate Tax's scheduled increases in 2011, House Democrats passed a bill that would repeal the 2001 law and permanently freeze Estate Tax rates at their current levels--$3.5 million individual exemption and a maximum rate of 45 percent--while reinstating the Estate Tax in 2010 (by virtue of repealing the language that scheduled its one-year nonexistence).

That bill, called the Permanent Estate Tax Relief for Families, Farmers, and Small Businesses Act of 2009, is still pending in the Senate, so the Estate Tax did not go back into effect for 2010. It is still scheduled to come back stronger in 2011.

Republicans, meanwhile, have preferred to completely repeal the Estate Tax before the 2001 law ends in 2011, and they tried to do so before Democrats took over Congress. Now, Republicans in Congress have suggested a higher exclusion and a lower tax rate (35 percent) than those included in the Democrats' bill.

The National Republican Congressional Committee simplifies this a bit in two new TV ads attacking House Democrats Ike Skelton (MO) and Jim Marshall (GA) for their votes in favor of the Democratic plan, and the ominous-sounding Death Tax sounds ominous once again in the ads, as a narrator warns that Skelton and Marshall voted to reinstate it.

"[Marshall] voted to increase the Death Tax, which would hurt farmers and small business owners," the NRCC narrator says. Skelton, according to the ad in his Missouri district, simply voted "for the Death Tax."

In Marshall's case, the claim appears to be shaky. Marshall does not seem to have actually voted to increase the tax, given that the Democratic bill would lock it in at its current levels. In Skelton's case, he voted "for" the Estate Tax in the sense that he wanted it to exist in this form.

In spirit, the attacks on Skelton and Marshall are entirely legitimate. If the midterm elections are, as Democrats have said they should be, a choice between two alternatives, then the NRCC's ads accurately represent a comparison of Democratic and Republican policies: Republicans want a lower Estate Tax (or no Estate Tax at all), while Democrats want an Estate Tax at levels that have already been lowered since 2001, under the original Republican plan.

But without doing some digging into the recent history of the Estate Tax, it's hard to glean from these brief references just what Marshall and Skelton supported.

Asked about the ads' portrayal of Marshall and Skelton's Estate Tax votes, NRCC spokesman Paul Lindsay pointed to the fact that, as the House voted on its bill that would lock the rate at 45 percent, the Estate Tax rate was scheduled to hit zero in the following year--which, by the NRCC's logic, constitutes a vote for an increase.

"The facts could not be more simple - both Ike Skelton and Jim Marshall supported the largest increase in the Death Tax in American history," Lindsay said.

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