WASHINGTON — Party chit-chat can be a problem when you're an agent of the Internal Revenue Service. When people find out what you do, they tend to develop an urgent need to cross to the other side of the room and sample the guacamole.
But in time, many return with a nagging question. After all, tax problems are a fundamental aspect (some would say irritant) of American life, like traffic jams or slow clerks at the grocery check-out.
"Being an IRS agent is not unlike being a doctor or an auto mechanic," says Dominick LaPonzina, public affairs officer at the IRS office in Baltimore. "If you're a mechanic, people want to talk about this ping in the engine. If you're a tax accountant, people ask, 'Well, what do I do to get more deductions?' "
Working for an agency that is reviled by much of the public and continually blasted by officialdom can be, well, taxing. But many IRS workers see themselves as dedicated public servants whose mission is to help perplexed citizens decipher America's intricate tax code.
Tonight, as the 1996 income-tax season ends for most Americans, the crunch is just starting for the 100,000 workers at the IRS. In coming weeks, agents will process more than 120 million individual income-tax returns, 17 million of them received electronically. Millions of Americans will receive refunds, the average refund being $1,327. A smaller group, 1.5 million, will be visited by an auditor.
To an outsider, a career in tax collection might seem to rank down there with politics, journalism, and armed robbery. Indeed, shunning tax collectors is as old as the Bible. But the accountants and auditors who work at the IRS see things differently.
"I don't think people realize how far we go to help people," says Pat Brummer, an IRS customer-service officer in Indianapolis. "Today I spent 20 minutes on the phone with a man, going line-by-line over his tax form. We're here to help people comply with the law."
Hired back in 1979, Ms. Brummer says she takes 60 calls a day in the peak season. The more common problems can be handled quickly, such as when taxpayers put the wrong Social Security numbers on their forms. Other calls are more memorable.
Once, Brummer had to tell a local TV newscaster that he couldn't deduct the cost of a nose-job as a business expense. "He argued that he had to do it to keep his job," she recalls. "I wasn't convinced."
Another call came from an exotic dancer, who wanted to know if she could deduct the cost of her costumes. "I tried to remain calm and treat it like someone was telling me about their UPS uniform," she recalls with a chuckle. Work clothing is deductible if it is not suitable for wearing on the street. The stripper got the deduction.
IRS employees often have to correct misconceptions about the agency, says LaPonzina. Although newspaper editorials rail about "IRS tax laws," the IRS doesn't write the laws; Congress does. And IRS auditors don't work on commission, rewarded for every deduction they disallow; they receive a salary.
Public mistrust of the local taxman may not be surprising, since few people can understand the jargon of most tax laws. Adding to the mistrust are recent allegations that some 150 agents used tax records to snoop on political figures and personal friends. But agents say face-to-face contact in a walk-in center often cuts through the tension.
"They're on their guard for a moment until they realize you're just a normal person," says Helen Herzer, a former customer-service agent and now the national spokeswoman for the IRS. "I've never had anyone screaming in my face."
When people start raising their voices, says Brummer, "You put yourself in their shoes and realize, 'They're not mad at me, they're mad at the law.' "
"One bad call isn't going to ruin my day," she adds.