Perhaps income-tax scofflaws, scattered as they are throughout the nation, are secretly gleeful at the attention given to IRS abuses. They shouldn't be. Americans still have a civic duty to pay taxes, distasteful though it may be. The health of the nation depends on it. And the nation needs a reliable way to collect income taxes. Until Congress decides on a better system, the IRS is it.
But the agency needs serious reform. The rare, unanimous vote in the Senate last week is dramatic evidence that this message has gotten through loud and clear to the nation's leaders.The measure would set up a nine-member board with the authority to oversee the performance of the IRS. It would shift the burden of proof from the taxpayer to the IRS in certain court cases, and it would install certain protections for troubled taxpayers, particularly divorced women whose ex-husbands made mistakes without their knowledge.
It is a far more ambitious reform measure than the one passed nearly unanimously by the House last year. But the IRS should have expected no less. The parade of abused taxpayers at Senate hearings painted an appalling picture of IRS police tactics. Their anecdotes illustrated what could happen to any government agency that is given police powers with little, if any, oversight. Not even the highest levels of government were immune. Agents once targeted former White House Chief of Staff Howard Baker.
If any moment served to illustrate the severity of the problem, it was when a contrite IRS Director Charles Rossotti appeared before senators and didn't even attempt to deny the charges of abuse. Instead, he pledged to correct the problems.
But the time is far past for the agency to do its own correcting. Congress is on the right path, and House and Senate negotiators now need to begin the process of drafting a bill that finds compromise between the two measures they have passed.
Meanwhile, however, they also need to begin remodeling the entire tax structure. IRS abuses are encouraged by the fact the tax code fills nearly 10,000 pages and is impossible to comprehend.
The IRS is a convenient whipping boy. People hate to pay taxes, and understandably so. They especially hate the idea that an agency has police powers and is not controlled by any sort of representative gov-ern-ment.
But that hate shouldn't translate into tax rebellion - other than the legitimate kind that uses the political process. Some GOP leaders had thought of scrapping the IRS and the entire tax system before they had anything in place as a substitute. That would have been reckless.
The nation still needs the IRS. Congress is right to reform it until it can find a better way to raise funds.