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Clinton unveils plan to tighten reins on IRS

Chastened by congressional hearings on Internal Revenue Service abuses, President Clinton unveiled Friday a broad plan to protect taxpayers from an "all-powerful, unaccountable and often downright tone-deaf" tax collector.

The plan drew instant Republican criticism for falling short of demands that the tax agency be placed under independent control.The proposal would dramatically expand customer services by the IRS, recommend creation of 33 local "citizen advocacy boards" for greater citizen involvement in fielding complaints and give greater powers to the agency's taxpayer advocate's office.

The office last year helped 300,000 Americans resolve tax problems in an average of 38 days.

Such citizen panels would "provide the private sector input we need," Clinton said. "It is the right way to reform the agency."

Seeking to prevent such practices as audit quotas and collection goals, Clinton would also ban the IRS from ranking its district offices on the basis of how many enforcement activities their agents undertake.

"Abuse, bullying or callousness by officials of our government are unacceptable," the president said.

Vice President Al Gore and Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin joined Clinton Friday in laying out the program - a mix of executive actions and proposed legislation.

Two weeks ago, the administration had to defend its oversight of the IRS amid dramatic, high-profile Senate hearings at which agents described abuse of taxpayer information and a quota-driven work force.

"I was genuinely angered by the stories of our citizens harassed and humiliated by what seemed to them to be an all-powerful, unaccountable and often downright tone-deaf agency," Clinton said.

His package did not incorporate GOP proposals to allow taxpayers to recover certain costs, fees and damages when they prevail in disputes where the IRS position was unjustified.

Treasury Department analysts were still calculating how much Clinton's proposed changes would cost, administration officials said.

Criticism was heavy from congressional Republicans who wanted the agency wrested from Treasury's control and placed under independent management.

"It's a reaction, not reform," Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, said of Clinton's plan.