Unity on reforming the IRS Bipartisan support: Cardin-Portman bill seeks to overhaul culture, management and technology of the nation's tax collector.

October 23, 1997

THOSE LOOKING FOR a fight over reforming the Internal Revenue Service must have been sorely disappointed this week. Most of the opponents of massive change suddenly joined the parade to transform the IRS into a more customer-friendly, efficient collector of the nation's taxes.

The House Ways and Means Committee overwhelmingly approved yesterday the bipartisan bill written in large part by Baltimore's Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, the main co-sponsor along with Rep. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican. It now has the solid backing not only of House Republicans, but of House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and President Clinton.

House passage should occur next week. However, the Senate may not act on the IRS measure until next year -- unless Delaware Sen. William Roth has a change of heart. He is missing a golden opportunity to cash in on the momentum that has built behind the House bill to put a comprehensive reform plan on the president's desk before Christmas.


The Cardin-Portman bill is not without flaws. As passed by the Ways and Means Committee, the measure would shift the burden of proof in tax court cases from the filer to the IRS. The language crafted by committee chairman Bill Archer needs modification to make sure this change doesn't open the door to massive tax-cheating and destruction of tax records by filers seeking to avoid paying their fair share to the government.

On another key point, the IRS commissioner will continue to be appointed by the president and report to the Treasury secretary. But a new oversight management board dominated by private-sector business leaders will help develop long-range strategic plans and hold the commissioner accountable for implementing long-needed reforms.

Senator Roth's hearings last month, featuring a litany of IRS abuses and ill treatment of taxpayers, created the kind of public outrage that assured unity on a reform bill.

As we noted in an editorial three weeks ago, the Roth hearing gave Democrats a choice: "Either move quickly to make the IRS kinder, gentler and more efficient, or face a political firestorm." This week, they moved to try to neutralize the Republicans' advantage on the tax-collection issue in next year's congressional elections.


The Cardin-Portman bill could lead to more customer-sensitive practices at the IRS, better decisions on technology purchases and vastly improved management decisions.

The measure also sets a goal of 80 percent electronic filings of income-tax returns within 10 years, which would dramatically cut the agency's operating costs and error rates. Finally, the House bill gives Congress a joint oversight committee to review the IRS' performance, instead of 20 separate committees with IRS jurisdiction but with little eagerness to do the job right.

A major impediment remains, however. As a bipartisan commission reported after a year-long review of the IRS, the complexity of the tax code creates much of the agency's difficulties and is "a large source of taxpayer frustration." For instance, since the tax code was "simplified" by Congress in 1986, 4,000 amendments have been added -- an average of one change a day for 11 years.

Until Congress acts to make tax returns truly simple to understand and to prepare, there will always be serious tensions between taxpayer and tax collector.

In the long run, this reform bill enhances the prospects for an improved situation. Yet any agency that employs 100,000 people, collects $1.5 trillion each year and depends on voluntary compliance from 200 million Americans will have its share of problems.

Fixing the IRS won't happen over night.

Pub Date: 10/23/97

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