The following editorial appeared in today's Washington Post:
The Senate Finance Committee was told again the other day that after Congress ''restructured and reformed'' the Internal Revenue Service in 1998, enforcement actions by the agency sharply declined. Members who helped write the legislation expressed astonishment that their intentions could have been so thoroughly misunderstood. ''Just let me make the observation that there is nothing in the reform legislation that says the IRS is not to enforce our tax law,'' said Chairman William Roth, who led the attack on the agency that helped produce the bill. ''The fact is that we want to make sure that in enforcing the tax law and securing the revenue that we treat (the taxpayers) fairly and with due process. That's all. . . . ''
No doubt that's so, and it raises the question: How could the agency's employees have failed so miserably to appreciate what the mainly Republican sponsors of the restructuring had in mind? How, for example, could they have failed to understand what Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott meant in the fund-raising letter he sent out in behalf of the Republican National Committee at the time? That's where Mr. Lott spoke of the ''monstrous IRS bureaucracy,'' its ''harassment of law-abiding taxpayers,'' its complicity in such acts as collecting ''inheritance taxes (that) are destroying family farms and small businesses.'' The letter concluded by asking the addressee to ''support the Republican National Committee in (its) campaign to, once and for all, end the IRS' reign of terror' . . . and stimulate our economy by letting YOU spend YOUR money as YOU see fit. . . . ''
Critics demonized the agency to suit their political purposes, imposed new restrictions on it, cowed it to some extent and now express surprise that their demagogic campaign had precisely the effect that they professed at the time was their intent. They can't have it both ways.
The IRS was and is a troubled agency. A congressional panel led by Sen. Bob Kerrey and Rep. Rob Portman found after careful inquiry in 1997 that it suffered from serious organizational and management problems, was indeed guilty of occasional mistreatment of taxpayers and was badly in need of modernization. The legislation that Congress passed may be helping to achieve that.
The people who now run the IRS believe that they're in the process of restoring the balance between firmness and fairness that was lost a couple of years ago. We hope so.
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