Some of the abuses against taxpayers alleged in Senate hearings on the Internal Revenue Service are appalling. Anyone would quake at the thought of getting caught in the kind of nightmares the victims are describing.
The tales from abused taxpayers -- as well as some from current and former IRS agents testifying with their identities hidden -- constitute more than sufficient basis for a thorough review of the agency's practices and its management.
That review and reform effort already has started, thanks to the hearings that pulled back the curtain on a once-insulated agency many feared to take on.
But there is a more immediate danger here for most taxpayers than the fairly remote possibility that any particular individual will face an overzealous auditor.
To put the hearings in perspective, consider similar allegations of abuse against police agencies. Police brutality is appalling, but no one has called for abolishing police departments. Critics just want the renegade cops punished and the culture changed.
That's an analogy citizens would do well to keep in mind as they ponder the hidden agenda that may be behind the IRS hearings.
It's no secret that many of the members of Congress taking the most joy in the hearings are those who have long wanted to eliminate the IRS and the progressive tax code that tries to shield the middle class from over-taxation. With that agenda in mind, it's surely no coincidence that Rep. Bill Paxon, R-Amherst, chose one week before the hearings to unveil his legislative bid to repeal almost the entire tax code.
Nor is it a coincidence that flat-tax advocates like Steve Forbes would pick this week to jump on that bandwagon. They want to reignite a tax-reform flame that most Americans doused last year once they realized that they would be the big losers if the progressive tax system is scrapped in favor of a flat tax or a national sales tax.
Vilifying the IRS to bring down the tax code makes no more sense than vilifying police and then calling for abolition of the criminal code.
The hearings have certainly demonstrated that reform within the IRS is needed. They featured stories about IRS agents or offices operating on a quota system -- which Congress outlawed in 1988.
The testimony also included allegations that the department picks on middle- and lower-income taxpayers and small businesses because they are the most defenseless, and that agents "whipsaw" taxpayers into paying up by going after friends or relatives.
The hearings even produced a priest who told of being hounded and threatened for months over an $18,000 tax bill it turns out he never owed.
IRS methods of evaluating and rewarding workers must be changed so there's no incentive for improper investigations or unscrupulous tactics.
And though the IRS must not be overseen by the very corporate interests it's supposed to monitor -- as some reform plans advocate -- more use of outside review boards and taxpayer advocates also would help.
But none of that requires abolishing the concept of progressive taxation. Middle-class Americans who fear the tax man also should fear the bigger tax bite they'll face if Congress uses these hearings as an excuse not just to fix the IRS, but to tilt the tax code toward more breaks for multimillionaires -- and a greater burden on the middle.