WASHINGTON -- Pledging to tame "an all-powerful, unaccountable and often downright tone-deaf" Internal Revenue
Service, President Clinton unveiled yesterday a plan to reform the agency, but stopped short of endorsing more drastic changes being urged in Congress.
"The IRS should be above reproach. Americans who work hard and pay their taxes deserve to be treated fairly," he said. "Abuse or bullying or callousness by officials of our government are unacceptable whenever and wherever they occur. If they occur once, it's once too many. But especially in connection with the IRS, it is important that they be rooted out."
In what is fast becoming a political battlefront, congressional Republicans dismissed the proposal as inadequate, largely because it would not put the IRS under the control of a private board rather than the Treasury Department.
In his plan, Clinton did propose creating a board to help monitor the IRS, but it would only have the power to give advice to the Treasury secretary.
That proposal must be approved by Congress, which also would have to approve a Clinton proposal to give a taxpayer advocate inside the agency power to suspend IRS seizures of property.
But Clinton could initiate several changes on his own:
Banning agency rules that rank employees by how much money they collect from taxpayers.
Adding Saturday office hours during the tax season.
Extending the hours when IRS agents answer advice lines, from the current 12 hours a day, five days a week, to 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, all year.
His recommendations come as congressional Republicans kick off a campaign against the IRS and in favor of broad tax reform that is likely to continue into the 1998 congressional elections and 2000 presidential campaign.
The GOP push got a boost a couple of weeks ago when ordinary citizens told harrowing stories about how they had been mistreated by the IRS.
"Like most Americans, I was genuinely angered by the stories of our citizens harassed and humiliated by what seemed to them to be an all-powerful, unaccountable and often downright tone-deaf agency," Clinton said.
But he, Vice President Al Gore and Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin all went to great lengths to say that the administration was preparing its reform plans before the hearings.
"The president's plan to loose a pack of toothless watchdogs on the IRS isn't a substitute for real change," said Republican Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas. "No citizen advocacy panels can substitute for the sweeping management changes that are needed."
Rep. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, called the proposal "too little, too late."
"My fear is if we just do these smaller measures, two years from now, we will just be right back up on Capitol Hill talking about more taxpayer abuses," said Portman, who co-chaired a bipartisan review of the IRS with Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska.
They have proposed a reform plan that includes a nine-member board, appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, that would have power to oversee the agency and approve its budget.
Kerrey, who ran against Clinton for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination, called the reform proposals "a step toward passing comprehensive IRS reform legislation."
Clinton and Gore flatly rejected the idea of an independent board overseeing the IRS, and dismissed Republican proposals to eliminate the IRS and replace the current tax code with a flat tax, in which all taxpayers would be subject to one tax rate.
"There are some who will always believe the best way to fix government is to get rid of it. We know there is a better way. We know that we can have an IRS that is not just off people's backs but is also on their side," said Gore.
Pub Date: 10/11/97