A Taxing Problem

Five years ago, Charles Rossotti, President Clinton's nominee to head the Internal Revenue Service, told a Senate committee how he would rein in IRS abuses of taxpayers. That was followed by GOP-sponsored legislation strengthening taxpayers' rights and modernizing the tax agency to provide better service.

Times have changed. With April 15 fast approaching, President Bush's nominee, Mark Everson, recently told a Senate committee that he would step up enforcement. The challenge: The IRS is unable to pursue 60 percent of overdue tax payments, 75 percent of taxpayers who don't file, and 79 percent of those illegally hiding money in offshore bank accounts.

Some would see a conflict here. But it's hard to believe the IRS can't treat taxpayers respectfully and go after tax cheats at the same time.

The problem is twofold: First, when organizations shift emphasis, they often overcompensate. Second, the IRS has some of the government's most tangled computer problems. Its computer upgrades continue to fall behind schedule and come in over budget. These systems are key to more efficient IRS enforcement.

Mr. Everson says he'll instruct IRS employees that enforcement is a priority. That's fine - as long as it doesn't mean a return to the days when, by the IRS's own admission, agents trampled many taxpayers' rights in their zeal to meet enforcement goals.

On the other hand, the Bush administration's proposal to turn over recovery of tax debts to private collection agencies is more dubious. The IRS can better control and stop abuses when government employees are doing the collecting.

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