Simple Shape-Up Plan for IRS

A task force charged with "Reinventing Service at the IRS," as its 92-page report is titled, has offered 200 proposals for making the government's least popular agency more user-friendly. Among the most radical, as well as the most elementary, is that Internal Revenue Service workers be evaluated and rewarded on the basis of what kind of customer service they provide, specifically on how fairly and quickly they resolve taxpayers' problems, instead of on how many cases they process. Beyond that, there's little that would cause eyebrows to elevate or gorges to rise. It makes perfect sense to open IRS offices on Saturdays during tax filing season and to rewrite tax forms in plain English. The wonder is that it took a task force to recommend these obvious changes.

The report found--again to no one's surprise--that existing "IRS performance measures are production-driven, overvalue enforcement, focus on isolated steps . . . and may inadvertently encourage unfair treatment of taxpayers." Indeed they too often do, as the horror stories related to the Senate Finance Committee last fall by victims of a system run amok vividly demonstrated. That show proved so popular with the public that Senate Republicans plan to reprise it late next month.

Much of what the IRS task force calls for can be implemented administratively, and in fact a start has been made. The big question remains what Congress will do about dealing with structural reforms in the IRS. Last fall a bipartisan majority in the House passed a reform bill on a compelling vote of 426 to 4. But some Senate Republicans say they want to "toughen" this measure, in part by limiting the interest and penalties the IRS could collect. That would mean a loss in revenue that would have to be made up by cutting programs or raising taxes, neither a likely prospect.

The House legislation creates an independent board to oversee the IRS. It would end decades of unfairness by putting the burden of proof on the IRS in any dispute with taxpayers, and it protects innocent spouses from mistakes made on joint returns. These are important steps toward a more equitable system, and the Senate will be remiss if it fails to act on them soon. After that should come a thorough and, preferably, bipartisan effort to drastically revise or replace the monstrously complex tax code. Congress wrote all 9,451 pages of it; Congress has to unwrite it.

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