HOW HE SEES IT IRS needs Congress' help catching tax cheaters

Taxpayers are cheating the federal government out of $311 billion in taxes a year, and while we shouldn't turn the Internal Revenue Service into an ultra-powerful force of gotcha experts, Congress ought to be willing to pay more to get more.
Says the IRS Oversight Board, more funds for the agency could mean more manpower, which in turn would mean that fewer cheaters would get away with their cheating. The amount being lost is enormous -- almost 70 percent of this year's record $445 billion deficit -- and there could be great returns on a relatively small IRS investment.
What the Bush administration wants is some $400 million on top of last year's $4.2 billion IRS enforcement budget, a news account tells us. The House doesn't want to go that far, and the Senate hasn't yet made it clear what it wants.
Enforcement personnel
It would be understandable if Congress were worried about the IRS getting so big and strong that it could endlessly harass even the innocent, who after all are going to make mistakes now and then. But too thoroughgoing an operation is not the issue. The whole collection system could be imperiled, the board says, if the IRS cannot recover from a situation in which the number of enforcement personnel has declined over eight years from 25,000 to 16,000.
Letting cheaters get away with their cheating hurts the nation fiscally, of course, and does other things: It eats away at the system's very foundation and is unfair to those taxpayers who are honest. The information from an Associated Press story is that some 19 percent of taxpayers think cheating is OK. These people don't think we all should do our share? They don't think abiding by the rules is crucial to maintaining the kind of social order that makes decent lives possible?
Sending a message
The cheaters, of course, will not include all those who excuse it, and will include some who know it's wrong and think they can get away with it. Congress must cough up enough money for IRS to send both the latter group and the morally confused cheaters a message: You may very well get caught and then have to pay in more ways than one.
X Jay Ambrose is director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard Newspapers

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