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Christopher Brauchli

It Would Be Politic if the IRS Were Polite


Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society. --Oliver Wendell Holmes

If you thought income tax time dimmed the beauties of a flowering spring, consider the plight of the IRS. Not only did it have its usual April 15 mail sorting and opening problems that prevented its employees from seeing, much less sniffing the newly blossoming flowers, but it also had bad press.

Five days before the laggards among us were preparing to swamp IRS offices with last-minute filings, the newspapers were filled with tales of the inaccuracy of the information being dispensed by the Service.

Results of an investigation conducted by the General Accounting Office disclosed that upon asking for information, investigators were misinformed 22% of the time. Fifteen percent of the time, answers given were good as far as they went but didn't go far enough.

As if that wasn't enough, Congress decided April was a good month to hold hearings to determine whether it should legislatively mandate that the IRS be nice to its customers. The legislation being considered was referred to as a Taxpayers' Bill of Rights.

Although it is a given that businesses that want to keep their customers are nice to them, the IRS operates under a different set of rules because we are all captive customers. There is a rumor that the IRS is not nice to all its clientele. The bill was introduced to respond to those rumors. It would do many things. Here are two:

First, it would require the IRS to abandon a practice once followed by many traffic courts. Traffic court judges retained a portion of the fines collected by them as part (if not all) of their compensation. It eventually dawned on legislators that such a practice encouraged the levying of high fines even when defendants did not deserve them.

The IRS thought that with slight modifications, the system was well suited to its purposes. Although agents were not compensated on the basis of their collections, collections were reportedly a factor in job evaluations. The deputy commissioner of the IRS testified that evaluation of an employee's performance was not based on dollars collected. Joseph B. Smith, who spent 18 years as a field agent, disagreed. He said supervisors judge performance on how much property agents seize and how much money they collect.

Second, it requires the IRS to read taxpayers their rights before visiting with them. That requirement is similar to the requirement now imposed upon law enforcement officials when dealing with suspects in criminal cases. The IRS commissioner objects to that proposal. He says that if taxpayers were read their rights, "it would immediately create an adversarial relationship."

In his testimony, Smith referred to an internal memo prepared by a supervisor urging agents to seize taxpayers' property as soon as possible after demand. It further suggested that when dealing with a taxpayer, the agent should put "as little space between his (taxpayer's) back and wall as possible." The Service's concern with the taxpayer's posture is laudable. So is its eagerness to take steps to ensure that taxpayers don't inadvertently dispose of property the IRS hopes to acquire for itself. Nonetheless, the language in the memo could easily be misunderstood by one not familiar with the benevolence of the IRS. People who have had dealings with the IRS might find it more descriptive of the conduct they have observed than the commissioner believes.

That being the case, I, for one, hope Congress ignores the commissioner's suggestions and enacts the legislation. Although the commissioner may be disappointed at losing an argument with Congress, his disappointment will turn to joy should he ever be audited.

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