Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's

Governments need tax collectors. Without them, they would have no revenue to cover the wages of the armed forces and civil servants. Nor could government provide Social Security or Medicare benefits, pay highway contractors, or finance any other of many government services.

That doesn't mean that taxes are popular. From the publicans of Bible days to the Internal Revenue Service of today, tax collectors have been reviled. It would be extraordinary for anyone to write a check to Uncle Sam, as the April 15 deadline arrives, and think, "How much fun this is!"

Taxes become even more the subject of derision if they and their collectors are unfair. This means the IRS is a natural target for politicians. Attacking the agency is a good way to make points among voters.

So it's not surprising that Sen. William Roth Jr. (R) of Delaware, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has timed publication of his book to tax day.

Though co-authored by William H. Nixon, the book is written in the first person singular. It is Senator Roth speaking.

The book is a byproduct of comprehensive Senate hearings that resulted in the IRS Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998. Like the hearings, the book is heavily laced with tales of IRS abuse of taxpayers. The horror stories were a way of getting press and congressional attention at the hearings. And they do make the book easier reading.

The danger of such an approach is that it could damage IRS morale. So Roth writes that "the vast majority of [IRS] employees are doing an extremely good job under very difficult conditions" - or something like that periodically in the book.

Anybody who has been around a while knows that tax cheating is not uncommon. The IRS collectors have been given extraordinary powers to pursue these cheats. If the IRS weren't tough, the tax burden for those who are honest would be much worse.

Despite its showmanship aspect, this book demonstrates that the hearings and 1998 law were needed to remind our tax collectors that they are servants of the people, not vice versa. Just as the majority of police recognize their public service function and only a minority are bad cops, so IRS officials need to be told that we pay their salaries - though with reluctance.

Power, unchecked, is often abused. So Roth is right in urging continued congressional oversight of the IRS. He notes that the new IRS commissioner, Charles Rossotti, told him changing the over-bearing culture of the IRS will require "a decade of training and oversight, vigilance by Congress, and zero tolerance for abuse and mismanagement within the Service."

Roth graciously admits that Congress itself stands responsible for much of the IRS problem. It has passed complex tax provisions that "are beyond the understanding of any but the most well-studied tax experts. And even they have problems."

He calls for a tax reform that would embrace simplicity. "There is no question that the majority - if not all - of the abuses we uncovered could have been obviated by a tax code that is easy to understand, fairly applied, and efficiently administered."

In its search for revenues, Congress has also provided the IRS with its immense powers and penalties intended to promote tax compliance, but too often abused.

The book includes a chapter on how to "protect yourself" from IRS abuses. It sounds like the numerous tax-advice volumes crowding bookstore shelves around this time of year - a bit odd for a book on reforming the IRS, but perhaps useful.

*David R. Francis is the Monitor's senior economics correspondent.

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