Clinton tries to save Congress from itself


WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's plan for the Internal Revenue Service may never reach his goal of making the agency "customer-friendly." But it is far more realistic than the radical proposals Republicans in Congress are promoting.

Everyone in both parties understands that the IRS is feared or hated -- or both -- by many voters and thus qualifies as an obvious target for grandstanding politics. And the reputation of the agency has suffered another serious blow from the Senate hearings that spelled out spectacular abuses of taxpayers.

But the notion that the problem can be resolved with a single draconian stroke is laughable. And that is essentially what some Republicans are recommending with their plans for taking the IRS out of the Treasury Department and putting it under the control of a new, independent board of overseers.

This is a classic case of politicians in Congress coming up with a simple answer to a complex problem. They claim they can correct a situation with a single stroke. They know they won't have to deal with the dirty details of seeing to it that the new system works. The IRS is so unpopular, however, that the president cannot simply ignore these extremist ideas without paying a political price. So he has ceded just enough to save Congress from itself. His plan calls for a board of trustees of eight members, including five from the private sector, and 33 local "citizen advocacy panels" to monitor the agency's performance in an advisory capacity.

These new groups wouldn't have the power to effect changes on their own. But they would have the power to call attention to abuses in a highly visible way that would constitute pressure for better performance, much in the way that citizen review boards monitor the behavior of local police departments.

We already know the issue is a natural for demagogy. Running for the Republican presidential nomination two years ago, magazine publisher Steve Forbes first captured some voter attention with his proposal for imposing a flat tax and eliminating the IRS. Everyone could simply send in his return "on the back of a postcard."

Questions arise

It sounded terrific, but only at first blush. The more thoughtful voters and politicians examined the Forbes plan, the more questionable it became. After all, even if there were no IRS, someone would have to collect the taxes. And not everyone's tax situation is so simple it could be reduced to a postcard.

The tax code may be entirely too complicated. But there are sound reasons for some of those complications, even if they cannot be described in a 30-second sound bite. The fact that the eventual Republican nominee, Bob Dole, was so resistant to the quick fix was a testament to his sense of responsibility for a sensible process.

Few issues are susceptible to quick fixes. That is the case whether those proposals come from the left or right. Liberals were just as irresponsible a few years ago, when they talked of moving money directly from weapons systems to the problems of the inner cities. It was a goal that could be achieved, but only over a period of years, and the same is true of fixing the flaws in the way Americans are taxed.

In this case, the pressure for radical solutions is coming largely from House conservatives who were far from satisfied with the tax reduction in the budget deal Mr. Clinton worked out with Republican leaders. They want to run for re-election on the pledge to cut taxes further and, at the same time, change the system.

There are, however, enough cooler heads in the Senate to forestall any drastic measures. Mr. Clinton has come up with a plan that Democrats can take to their constituents to demonstrate their party is not totally insensitive on the IRS question. It is not a solution to the problem, but neither is abolishing the IRS.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 10/15/97

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