Bent on claiming the popular IRS-reform mantle, Vice President Al Gore championed anew the administration's plan for a customer-friendly tax collector Wednesday.
He pushed the Senate to pass legislation restructuring the Internal Revenue Service "for this tax season and for all seasons."Emergency tax refunds issued in hardship cases within one business day, and new technology to route taxpayer telephone calls more efficiently were among the 200 administrative changes that Gore formally unveiled in a Roosevelt Room ceremony. He first disclosed many of those same ideas in the same room at the White House last fall.
"They will help us ensure that we have an IRS that is not just taken off people's backs but put on their side," the vice president said. A task force of IRS employees compiled the recommendations into a 92-page report.
Some Republicans suggested that Gore, a certain contender for the presidency in 2000, was trying to exploit the popular issue of IRS reform.
"He talked about all of this last fall. It's hard to see what's new here," sniffed Ari Fleischer, spokesman for the House Ways and Means Committee.
The committee crafted legislation - subsequently passed by the House on Nov. 5 - that, in any dispute, shifts the burden of proof from the taxpayer to the IRS, protects innocent spouses from mistakes made on joint returns, and creates an independent board to oversee the IRS.
"The congressional IRS reform train had already left the station, and today the administration hopped into the caboose," Ways and Means Chairman Bill Archer, R-Texas, said Wednesday.
On behalf of President Clinton, who was in Las Vegas, Gore claimed credit for getting House approval of the Republican bill.
"The Senate has been studying it for the last five months. It's time for the Senate to pass it so the president can sign it ... and help give the American people an IRS that is more fair, more efficient and more responsive for this tax season and for all seasons," Gore said.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman William V. Roth Jr., R-Del., said he would introduce his own IRS reform package "within the next few weeks." House Republican leaders hope to have joint agreement on a bill before Congress adjourns this year.
Businessman Steve Forbes, who is likely to seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, issued a statement knocking the administration's customer-service reforms. "Does anyone really believe Bill Clinton and Al Gore can make the IRS a kindlier and gentler place? It's ludicrous," Forbes said.
His political action committee launched a multi-state radio ad campaign advocating a complete overhaul of the IRS and the federal tax code by 2001.
To compile their report, called "Reinventing Service at the IRS," task force members picked the brains of front-line IRS workers and taxpayers on how to improve service at one of the government's least popular agencies. One finding was familiar: Taxpayers want "minimum contact with the IRS."
To that end, the IRS will drop unnecessary notices by the end of 1998, meaning the elimination of 45 million pieces of IRS mail per year.
The Clinton administration also plans to report to Congress this year on "the fairness and effectiveness of all penalties," which is in tune with growing congressional interest.
The IRS slapped taxpayers with $18.3 billion in penalties and interest in 1996, and collected $4.4 billion of that amount.