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Will reformed IRS really be better?

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In this year of political brinkmanship, Congress has sent President Clinton a bill he can't refuse - overhaul of the agency everybody loves to hate (with good reason).

Both Democrats and Republicans are jockeying ferociously for control of Congress, to be decided in the November elections. But the public resentment of the Internal Revenue Service is so great the "do-nothing-Congress" and the globe-trotting president had no choice but to come up with some salve.One of the most interesting things to come out of Congress in some time was the series of hearings on horror stories of IRS abuse of innocent citizens. Nothing makes the blood boil more than the injustice of the heartbreak caused by storm troopers in eye shades running amok in the lives of ordinary people barely making ends meet as it is.

That's why Clinton, in a quick study of the public pulse, dropped his opposition to IRS reform and has pledged to sign it as eagerly as if he thought of it himself.

So, the question is: Has Congress fixed the system?

Probably not. "Be warned," says Sen. Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., ominously. His point is now that the IRS, not the taxpayer, has the burden of proof that a taxpayer owes money, the agency will seek more intensive, intrusive audits that make today's audits seem like Sunday school picnics.

On the other hand, if a taxpayer goes to Tax Court and prevails against the IRS (no easy feat) it will now be easier to get the IRS to pay attorney fees. And a taxpayer can now sue the IRS for $100,000 on grounds of IRS negligence. And the IRS can't seize a private home for back taxes without a court order.

The new, improved IRS will have the same 102,000 employees (most of whom are decent, hard-working, conscientious people) overseen by a nine-person review board, including six regular people (as opposed to tax experts). This has prompted Senate Finance Chairman William Roth, R-Del., to predict with fanfare that "it will mean a new day for the American taxpayer."

Only in the sense that every 24 hours there is a new day. There will be no more resources for the agency; instead the new law will cost $13 billion from such things as reducing the time before investors can take advantage of a smaller capital gains tax. The telephone advice given to frantic taxpayers will not necessarily be any more reliable. Most of the 212 million people who file returns won't even notice any difference.

One provision that could be a boon in some bitter divorces says that an innocent spouse is not responsible for a former spouse's tax fraud. This has been a serious problem for some, usually women, who found that by signing a joint tax return without knowing the facts, they were liable for tax crimes the spouse committed before the divorce.

The new reforms will keep the IRS from pursuing taxpayers at odd hours of the night or waylaying taxpayers at odd places.

If the reforms help end some of the cynicism taxpayers have developed about the IRS and government in general, they will do a great service.