IRS puzzlements at tax time

THINK what fun it would be if all federal agencies had songs, the way the Oval Office has ``Hail to the Chief'' for the president. Some, of course, do -- at least over at the Pentagon. The Marines have ``Semper Fidelis.'' The Air Force sings about the ``wild blue yonder.'' And so forth. But what should be the song for the US Internal Revenue Service, the folks at the IRS? Maybe an updating of that old regional ballad, the one about ``Deep in the heart of taxes''? Or something more romantic like ``You belong to me.'' Possibly the song that might best describe what's currently going on over at the IRS is the ditty that Yul Brynner has sung so often in the ``King and I,'' the one that says ``It's a puzzlement. . . .''

It is a puzzlement. Here is an agency that demands no-nonsense compliance from its customers, the nation's taxpayers, in getting taxes filed on time.

Yet, the same no-nonsense agency seems to be having more than its usual share of problems in getting refund checks mailed out to taxpayers. There have also been numerous complaints about taxpayers having trouble getting through on IRS customer-service phone lines, as well as more serious accusations that some IRS employees, in order to catch up with their workload, have disposed of returns in paper shredders and restrooms.

To take the issue of destroyed returns first, IRS Commissioner Roscoe L. Egger Jr. has a good case when he says that such reports are ``sheer, utter nonsense.'' Anyone who has ever been in an IRS service center is aware of the extensive accounting controls used to log in and process returns.

If such incidents have occurred, however, witnesses do have a responsibility to come forward and identify what they have seen. And the media have a responsibility to document such incidents, rather than just make charges based on anonymous reports.

Now for the computer foul-ups: Congress is correct in taking a look at why IRS processing is so far behind this year. The IRS attributes the problem to a new computer line at its facilities, starting last November. The equipment was late, the IRS says. And coded instructions had to be debugged. Whatever, it is unfortunate that the foul-ups occurred during the period when most Americans were in the process of filing their taxes.

The phone lines: Here it is hard not to give the IRS the benefit of the doubt. The agency in recent years has sought to be truly helpful to taxpayers and to curtail any surliness that taxpayers may sense on the part of some IRS agents. Such efforts by the IRS are commendable and deserve public appreciation and support.

A final puzzlement: Is the Reagan administration making a mistake in not seeking additional IRS agents in this year's budget? Commissioner Egger says the agency is on the ``ragged edge'' in terms of having enough auditors and agents. The agency will seek to hire new agents starting in fiscal year 1987. But not in this year's requests, because of an administration decision to hold down the budget.

Where does all this leave taxpayers? The IRS, for all its problems, remains an efficient tax-gathering agency. IRS personnel, who are public servants employed by the American people, are asked to go after tax cheaters, so that honest taxpayers don't bear an unfair tax burden. Yet, the agents must remain cordial and fair in the process. It is an admitted challenge. And a puzzlement.

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