Legislation to root out abuse of taxpayers by the Internal Revenue Service is headed for final compromise negotiations following a rare unanimous vote in the Senate.
"The IRS has been out of control," Senate Republican Whip Don Nickles said Thursday night, shortly before the 97-0 roll call.The legislation would see to it "that people who are God-fearing and willing to pay their taxes have nothing" to fear from the IRS, added Nickles, R-Okla.
The measure would provide a variety of new rights for taxpayers, including shifting the burden of proof to the IRS in certain court cases. It also would provide protections for divorced people, mostly women, who face collection actions due to mistakes made by former spouses without their knowledge.
IRS penalties and interest would be suspended in some circumstances, and a new nine-member oversight board would gain authority over law enforcement and collections activity as well as personnel.
Passage came several days after the Senate Finance Committee held a series of hearings at which taxpayers, including former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker, described mistreatment at the hands of the IRS.
Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, was among those praising the bill.
"This act takes aggressive steps to return the agency to its original purpose, one of serving the American people rather than intimidating them with flawed and aggressive methods of tax collection," he said.
"The problem is that the agency itself has too much power and not enough sunshine," said Sen. William Roth, chairman of the finance committee and chief architect of the bill.
"It's an environment where honesty can be met by retaliation, where employees can be frightened to come forward . . . where the taxpayer is often perceived as the enemy and not the customer."
The House last year passed a less sweeping measure. Roth said no timetable has been set for the start of compromise discussions.
In a statement issued after the vote, President Clinton applauded the Senate's action and urged both the House and Senate to "send me a bill that expands taxpayer rights."