Reforming the IRS gains broad support Congress: Lawmakers must clean up their own act to make taxpaying simpler and user-friendly.

May 11, 1998

AWESOME unanimity in the Senate and near-unanimity in the House of Representatives make congressional reform of the Internal Revenue Service a steamroller that cannot be stopped.

The administration has reservations about details, which perhaps can be ironed out in a House-Senate conference committee before enactment. But President Clinton is joining, not opposing, this juggernaut, lest it flatten him.

There is no secret to how this rare bipartisanship under Republican leadership was accomplished. First, Congress established a bipartisan National Commission on Restructuring the Internal Revenue Service. That body put the IRS under a microscope for a year and made 52 recommendations. Then legislators used this common store of fact and advice to draft their IRS reform packages.

Never mind that a radical overhaul of an unlikable but necessary branch of government was accomplished with unprecedented agreement. Almost inadvertently, Congress also reformed its own way of doing business, setting an example of looking at a fundamental problem in the interest of all citizens. It should try this again, soon.

The new system would restructure the IRS for the first time in 46 years, providing a nine-member oversight board. The Senate version would add policing of the agency by the Treasury Department. Both versions would greatly strengthen taxpayer protections.

While the agency has been incompetent in such matters as a multibillion dollar failure at computer upgrading, the basic headache it gives taxpayers is Congress' fault. Congress never lets bad enough alone, annually tinkering to add complications to the tax code, never consulting the IRS on the effects and means of implementing new measures.

So it is welcome that Congress would professionalize its own as well as the IRS' performance, requiring itself to analyze new provisions of the code for complexity and to ask the IRS to report annually on taxpayers' problems.

The Senate added an example of the irresponsibility it is trying to cure, a loophole allowing wealthy taxpayers to roll over IRAs into Roth IRAs, paying in revenue right away but denying the government more revenue later on, without a hint of how to make up the difference. This deserves hard scrutiny at the conference stage. So do the taxpayer-friendly provisions, to make sure that none become escape hatches for real tax cheaters.

The net result still looks like an improvement in the way government operates, for both the IRS and Congress.

Pub Date: 5/11/98

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