Imbalance of power

September 30, 1997|By Carl T. Rowan

WASHINGTON -- Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi says the Internal Revenue Service is waging a "reign of terror" against American taxpayers.

Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, says "everybody fears the IRS."

A restrained Sen. William V. Roth Jr., R-Del., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, says the IRS is "a troubled agency . . . that is losing the confidence of the American people."

I haven't heard such an outburst of condemnatory rhetoric since the fall of the "Evil Empire" of the Soviet Union.

During the 1996 political campaign, when such chilling words were used as part of a Republican pledge to "abolish the IRS as we know it," many of us dismissed the broadsides as desperate efforts to court votes by sort of recklessly attacking the federal agency that every taxpayer is inclined to hate.

But now that the harsh indictments are ricocheting off the walls of the Senate chamber where Mr. Roth's committee is holding hearings, one has to ask, "What is the real motivation for these assaults?"

Do Republicans think that they can criticize the IRS to the point where Americans will say, "Enact a simple flat tax and then we won't need an IRS bureaucracy of 102,000 employees"?

Interestingly, there are cries in the Senate hearings that the IRS abuses middle-class taxpayers more than the rich -- a suggestion that the Senate probe is designed to protect "the little guy."

Perhaps the IRS symbolizes the big government that most Republicans prefer to hate, so the GOP is attacking out of a belief that if fewer taxes are collected less ruthlessly, government will have to shrink.

The Roth committee should have no trouble portraying the IRS as the monster of an out-of-control federal bureaucracy. A million people could come forward with infuriating stories about how they were "wronged" by the IRS.

Among the 102,000 IRS employees are many who are promotion-hungry, power-mad and meanly abusive. They give a bad name to an agency that has the difficult task of seeing that even our slick, greedy, corrupt citizens pay their law-required taxes.

Secret power

I think the committee hearings will show that in our zeal to catch tax scofflaws, we have given the IRS too much power to be wielded in secrecy without putting proper checks and balances in place.

As of now, there is no way an aggrieved citizen can challenge the IRS without spending a fortune on accountants, lawyers and tax-court proceedings.

We taxpayers spend millions of dollars for IRS people to help us figure out how much taxes we owe. We can afford a few million dollars for a citizen-appeals unit to which any taxpayer could go before his property is seized, humiliating liens are filed or businesses are destroyed.

The appeals unit should not have the final word in every case, but its very existence as an accessible mediator would restrain the IRS bullies and say to citizens, "Everybody doesn't have to fear the IRS."

Carl T. Rowan writes a syndicated column.

Pub Date: 9/30/97

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