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Taxes: obligations and rights

FEW would say that paying taxes is fun - certainly not Americans, who formed a nation partly with a battle cry of tax protest. But paying taxes is honorable and, in a democracy like the United States, an important test of citizen support for government. Citizens have a right to know that their tax system is based on principles of fairness, due process - and even courtesy - not just the certainty of enforcement.

Congressional hearings under way in Washington over a so-called ``taxpayer bill of rights'' represent one part of an ongoing process of public review of the tax system and of ensuring its public accountability.

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That's the way it should be, given the enormous power inherent in government's ability to compel payment of taxes. Last year's tax-reform law, which sought to achieve - but did not bring about - tax simplification, was another part of that ongoing review.

Lawmakers are to be commended for examining current Internal Revenue Service enforcement procedures. Some evidence coming out of the hearings is disquieting: Evidently some IRS officials went out of their way to seize the property of delinquent taxpayers, even though alternative enforcement measures might have been available. And certain IRS offices may have based promotion on the amount of funds collected, a policy the IRS forbids.

Sen. David Pryor (D) of Arkansas says he wants to end potential IRS abuses by, among other things, requiring the agency to inform taxpayers of their legal rights; requiring it to schedule taxpayer meetings at convenient times; and extending time to delinquent taxpayers before their property can be seized.

Congress should study the effect of such proposals on the overall collection process. Delinquent taxpayers must not be allowed to escape payment of taxes. But the IRS must be fair in its collection procedures.

If some agents have confused an honor system with an adversarial system, that will have to be rectified. They can't have it both ways.

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