The new IRS: customer friendly?

October 24, 1997|By Benjamin L. Cardin

NO AGENCY of the federal government is more distrusted, more feared, and more misunderstood than the Internal Revenue Service.

Reform of the IRS has become a political hot button in Congress, presenting a great opportunity for badly needed management reform, as well as danger of an overreaction that could damage an essential function of government.

Next week, the House of Representatives will vote on bipartisan legislation I have introduced that proposes the first major reform of the IRS in nearly half a century.

To achieve real reform of the IRS, however, will require partisans on both sides to leave the politics out of the debate, and concentrate on the real problems plaguing this troubled agency.

The political dangers are substantial. Too many Republicans see it as a way to attack the current overly complex tax code and to dump an agency whose function is vital.

On the other hand, many Democrats have reacted negatively and see reform only as a back-door way to give rich taxpayers a break from paying their fair share.

Neither is correct. The simple truth is that the IRS is in need of modernization that will transform the agency into a taxpayer-friendly customer service organization. Americans take for granted that they can call the customer service line and learn their credit card balance or place a catalog order.

Inadequate

When it comes to the IRS, however, the standards of customer service and information accuracy are woefully inadequate.

The record is clear that today's IRS doesn't do a good enough job. Recent congressional hearings uncovered widespread IRS ineptitude and misconduct.

The General Accounting Office has reported that the IRS cannot balance its own books; the service spent $4 billion on a failed computer system; and the GAO found that only 21 percent of all calls to the taxpayer assistance line were answered.

After a year-long review, the bipartisan National Commission on Restructuring the Internal Revenue Service issued a report detailing how the IRS should be restructured and modernized.

Commission concerns

Rep. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, and I have introduced legislation that addresses the concerns raised by the commission and is the basis of this bill.

At the heart of these reforms is the belief that service and information must be the core mission of the IRS.

While enforcement is an important aspect of the IRS' work, 90 percent of Americans pay their taxes voluntarily, without dispute. For these millions of taxpayers, ''IRS'' should stand for (x ''Information, Respect and Service.''

To change the focus of the IRS, we must give the IRS commissioner the tools necessary to overhaul the agency and make it more service-oriented.

To accomplish this, our legislation would create an IRS Oversight Board made up of individuals with expertise in the areas in which the IRS most needs help: customer service, information technology, organizational management and federal tax administration and compliance.

The oversight board would work with the commissioner and the Secretary of the Treasury in bringing the IRS into the modern era of service.

Under the new bill, the board's mission would be to help the commissioner achieve the reforms needed to streamline and modernize an agency that has not done as good a job as it should in dealing with taxpayers.

Critics have distorted the role of the oversight board, charging that the board will be made up of CEOs and business leaders, implying that the IRS will be run by the private sector.

Appointed board

Under the bill, however, the board would be appointed by the president, confirmed by the Senate and removable by the president.

Authority for the daily operations of the IRS would remain with the commissioner, and legal authority for the formulation of tax policy, as well as the overall direction of the IRS, would remain with the Secretary of the Treasury.

Beyond structural changes, the IRS reform bill would encourage the use of electronic filing, which lowers error rates and processing costs, enhances taxpayer rights and improves congressional oversight of the IRS.

These reforms would simplify and streamline the agency, enabling it to do a better job in giving the American people clear, accurate answers to their questions.

The American people overwhelmingly understand the need to modernize and update the IRS. Unfortunately, reforming the IRS has become a rallying cry for conflicting political agendas. It's time to refocus the discussion on what is best for American taxpayers.

Benjamin L. Cardin, who represents Maryland's 3rd Congressional District, is a member of the Ways and Means committee.

Pub Date: 10/24/97

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