FACING gargantuan budget deficits and antitax sentiment on the part of American voters, the United States government is stepping up its taxation of foreign-owned corporations as a seemingly painless way to raise billions of dollars in federal tax revenues.By closing tax loopholes, demanding more detailed information, and increasing enforcement efforts, the US Treasury hopes to wring as much as $20 billion from foreign-controlled multinationals each year, according to some congressional estimates. Congress is prodding the Internal Revenue Service to crack down on international tax-evaders with the same vigor with which the agency once pursued gangster Al Capone. To make the foreign firms pony up their "fair share" of taxes, US lawmakers have given tax collectors more money, manpower, and muscle. The tax agency is accepting Congress's mandate, promulgating a slew of new regulations and Draconian penalties. "We believe that the US government is being shortchanged billions of dollars annually," says Fred Goldberg, the IRS commissioner. A report by a congressional subcommittee last year disclosed that, of 36 foreign multinationals it investigated (25 of which were Pacific Rim companies while 11 were European), more than half paid little or no taxes during a recent 10-year period. Consider the case of Yamaha Motor Corporation, the Japanese motorcycle-maker. In 1982, the company paid a mere $123 in taxes - a far cry from the $27 million that the IRS is suing to recover in tax court. The report also noted that, in 1987, 14 of the 18 electronics companies that were studied reported $20 billion in total sales. Yet they paid a scant $38 million in taxes, not even 0.2 percent on sales. These 36 foreign companies chiefly used a mechanism known as "transfer pricing" to limit their US profits. US government investigators charge that, by inflating the costs that foreign-owned US affiliates pay their parent companies for VCRs, fax machines, computers, autos, and other consumer goods, the companies have been able to keep Uncle Sam's tax bill to a minimum. Other methods used to shield income from the taxman include piling on "excessive freight, insurance, interest, and other fees or charges," congressional investigators said. These tax issues have gotten more attention as global corporations are gaining in size and importance. The IRS reports that assets of foreign-owned multi- nationals doing business in the US grew by 368 percent from 1979 to 1987, increasing from $205 billion to $959 billion. US-owned corporations grew by only 102 percent in the same period. "My gut tells me that international tax compliance may indeed be the [tax] issue of the '90s," Ronald Pearlman, former chief of staff at the Joint Committee of Taxation, said recently. TO give the IRS more firepower against multinationals - both foreign and domestic - Congress has raised the international tax division's budget to $54.3 million this year, up from $38.2 million in 1990. The section is adding 39 economists and 24 examiners during the current fiscal year and plans 10 percent growth in personnel through 1993. Currently, the agency is pursuing transfer-pricing cases against 50-odd multinationals, including Hitachi, Daewoo, Apple Computer, Converse, and National Semiconductor. The alleged tax deficiencies amount to a staggering $16 billion, says Shirley Peterson, assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's tax division. Companies are now fretting over new IRS requirements that they maintain voluminous records on taxes, rebates, discounts, freight, storage, advertising, promotion, selling expenses, warranties - just about every conceivable business item. Critics have promptly labeled the IRS's new rules as "burdensome and onerous," charging that the multinationals are being seen as the panacea for all difficulties. "We do see an increase in auditing activity" by the IRS, says Marianne Burge, US director of international tax services at Price Waterhouse. "Some of these companies hadn't been audited for several years. In one fell swoop, the IRS hopes to cure two evils: the trade deficit and the budget deficit." She warns companies that they would be foolish not to comply with the new rules - especially since the IRS can slap a $10,000-per-violation penalty on taxpayers that do not produce data in a timely fashion. Even so, a recent Price Waterhouse survey of foreign companies found that more than 80 percent of them said that they would continue their current record-keeping practices. "A lot of foreign companies are very skeptical," Ms. Burge says. "They have been badly advised to litigate rather than to give th e IRS what it wants."