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IRS needs reform, not bandages

For years, apparently, Americans have been harassed and, in many cases, unfairly targeted by the Internal Revenue Service. That was the clear message many witnesses sent during recent congressional hearings. Now, President Clinton wants to solve these abuses by setting up support groups.

That is, essentially, what the core of his proposal, unveiled Friday, would do. Clinton's plan would establish 33 "citizen advocacy boards" to hear complaints against the IRS.Perhaps this idea is better understood if applied to a private-sector setting. If, for example, the head of a company has a manager who continually makes mistakes and abuses power, the Clinton solution would be to form a committee of employees to hear the many complaints.

Undoubtedly, most private-sector bosses would use a different approach. They would either fire or retrain the manager. Likewise, the IRS needs real, meaningful reform to stem the lack of public confidence in its practices.

That lack of confidence was demonstrated in a recent opinion poll conducted by Rasmussen Research. It found that 71 percent of America's private-sector workers have an unfavorable view of the IRS. Only 15 percent felt favorably toward the agency. Even among government employees, who would tend to be more sympathetic to another governmental agency, 53 percent held an unfavorable view. When asked whether the government should abolish the IRS, 40 percent of a cross-section sample of private and public employees agreed.

Congress isn't about to abolish the IRS so long as the current tax structure remains. Only a simple system that doesn't rely on income taxes would make that possible. But, in the meantime, much could be done to reform the agency.

Some Republican lawmakers have proposed establishing an independent board, including regular citizens, to control the agency's management and budget. Others want to hold the IRS liable for costs and damages when taxpayers win appeals. These ideas come closer to reflecting the growing public dissatisfaction.

The president's proposal had some good ideas. He wants to make the IRS more efficient and better capable of using modern technology. He wants to expand the IRS's taxpayer advocate's office and make the agency stay open on Saturdays during peak times.

These are all important changes, but taken together they amount to little more than bandages over gaping wounds. Americans deserve more.