A kinder, gentler IRS? Senate hearings: Tales of agency abuse of taxpayers spur actions on overdue reforms.

September 29, 1997

THREE DAYS of Senate hearings on Internal Revenue Service abuses seem to have lit a spark under the Clinton administration and its acting IRS commissioner, Michael P. Dolan. By the end of last week's hearings, he had admitted mistakes and issued sweeping policy directives.

President Clinton had already signaled big changes by naming a new IRS commissioner whose expertise lies in running large organizations, not in understanding the arcane details of tax law. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin has also hired an information-processing expert to halt the dreadful waste of tax dollars on failed computer systems.

That's not enough to satisfy Republicans. They see the IRS' failings as fertile political ground. In fact, the GOP has circulated a fund-raising letter asking for money to help the party "virtually abolish the IRS as we know it."

Last week's hearings sought to underline the need for drastic change. Tales of harassment of innocent taxpayers were enough to enrage even mild-mannered senators. Stories of pressure from within to boost IRS audits and property seizures added to the sense of outrage. But Mr. Dolan's mea culpa and his immediate responses blunted some of the ire.

Still, the hearings served as a needed wake-up call for Democrats: Either move quickly to make the IRS kinder, gentler and more efficient, or face a political firestorm.

Eliminating the IRS, as some of the more fanatical Republicans urge, won't happen. Someone has to handle the unpoplar job of acting as the nation's tax collector.

But the agency has fallen woefully behind in computer technology. It also has failed to set up a management system that discourages abusive practices. Now that Republicans have highlighted what's wrong with the IRS, the hard part lies ahead: Finding a solution.

Pub Date: 9/29/97

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