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IRS IS LONG OVERDUE FOR CHANGE

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The winds of change are howling around the halls of the Internal Revenue Service, and, while almost nobody likes the fearsome IRS the way it is, not everybody likes the revisions being suggested.

Congressional Republicans want to cut the IRS budget and force the agency to use private bill collectors to collect past-due taxes. Some - Sens. Bob Dole and Bob Bennett among the most vocal - want to abolish the IRS altogether.They are interesting ideas. The GOP lawmakers see the IRS as a symbol of the intrusion of big government into private lives and want to take away some of its authority, not to mention a considerable amount of its funds and employees. The lawmakers charge that inefficiency by the IRS has allowed uncollected debts to reach more than $150 billion.

The IRS contends that cutting back on enforcement is counterproductive because additional enforcers bring in five times their salaries in collections. IRS officials, in fact, say more spending by the agency would actually help balance the federal budget.

The agency also says using private bill collectors would lead to a violation of privacy rights among taxpayers and would undermine public perceptions of the fairness of federal tax structures.

It seems public perceptions of the agency's fairness are already at a very low point.

The threat of a violation of privacy is not as much a concern to the average taxpayer as the frightening possibility that any taxpayer, regardless of whether he or she is suspected of violating tax laws, may be audited, just as a matter of course.

Most of us have enough to worry about trying to understand and comply with the overwhelming tax rules and complicated forms.

But that type of oppressive presence may virtually disappear if Bennett and Dole get what they want: a "simple, neutral and stable system" that would negate the need for the IRS as we know it.

Whether the IRS is inefficient, as the Republican Congress contends, or over-efficient in hounding taxpayers, as many Americans fear, one thing seems certain: A modified tax system is long-overdue.

Adopting a simpler tax-collection mechanism and less-complicated forms has more merit than other ideas - including turning some of the current IRS duties over to private companies. The government should continue to collect taxes but without the use of fear as an enforcer.