Now that the Clinton administration has capitulated in the face of a Republican juggernaut, we can expect some kind of overhaul of the widely hated Internal Revenue Service.
But will Congress really defang the tax-collection agency?
Clinton and Democrats in Congress were in a political bind as Republicans claimed the unusual role of champion of the underdog.
"In the David-versus-Goliath battle between the taxpayer and the IRS, David is about to get a bigger slingshot," said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer, a Texas Republican.
Even though Archer's proposed IRS reforms carry the worrisome look of a Trojan Horse, Clinton and most Democrats found it "no win" to seem to reject the principle that a taxpayer is innocent until proven guilty. Archer steam-rolled them with his comment that "criminals have more rights in this country than taxpayers do."
So we are allowed to hope that no Americans will ever again have reason to cry that the IRS is investigator, indicter, judge, jury and executioner in most tax disputes.
But the reforms may constitute a smaller slingshot than Archer suggests. For example, will the IRS be stripped of the power to file liens and seize property before taxpayers have been found guilty in any court?
In campaigns against drug abuse, prostitution and even reckless driving, this society long ago effectively abandoned the presumption of innocence. We let lawmen seize the cash of people merely suspected of being drug peddlers, and seize the cars of "Johns" accused of soliciting sex before they are found guilty in any court of law. Some small-town police officers earn their pay by seizing the vehicles of persons they allege to be speeders.
Will Congress really take away this worst of police state tactics, but which is probably the most effective weapon employed by the IRS?
A lot of people are rejoicing prematurely over the now-bipartisan talk of switching the burden of proof from taxpayers to the IRS in court cases. This may sound great and "the American way," but don't forget that in audits and other challenges the taxpayer will still have the burden of proving that he declared all income and took only deductions allowed by law. IRS agents may request or subpoena far more documents and do more "detective" work to build a case that will stand up in court.
So, as the IRS develops new ways to deal with tax cheats and scofflaws, the honest people who pay voluntarily may find the tax system more burdensome after "reforms" than it is now.
This talk of making the IRS taxpayer-friendly may sound soothing, but the reality is that the agent who takes your money can never really be your friend. The most we can hope for is that Congress will make the rules so clear that an IRS agent can never again be Goliath and we taxpayers will never need slingshots.
North America Syndicate