A LAW UNTO ITSELF: Power, Politics, and the IRS by David Burnham

A LAW UNTO ITSELF: Power, Politics, and the IRS

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An unsparing and diligent but somewhat tedious audit of the Internal Revenue Service. Journalist Burnham (ex of The New York Times) dishes a wealth of dirt, past as well as present, on the IRS, arguably the most powerful and least accountable of federal agencies. His bill of particulars centers on its penchant for compelling rather than helping individuals, corporations, and other taxpayers to comply with applicable laws. The author (who is apparently unwilling to omit any detail of his scrupulous reportage) shows how, over the years, IRS enforcement efforts have proved less than evenhanded and, all too often, counterproductive. He cites a disturbingly large number of cases in which the oft-embattled arm of the US Treasury has made life miserable for presumptive enemies, innocent victims of its own errors, and inadvertent evaders; in like vein, officials have traditionally stood ready to allow other branches of government to use agency resources for partisan purposes, including harassment of so-called subversives or radicals. In addition, operatives at all levels of the organization (which is about five times the size of the FBI) have proved distressingly susceptible to outright bribery. Burnham attributes acceptance of the IRS as an 800-pound gorilla in part to ""Congress's almost paranoid concern about potential threats to the collection of revenue. . ."" Nor, he notes, are legislators eager to critique, much less curb, the agency's shortcomings for fear of incurring its wrath. In the event, the author recounts, the IRS is pressing ahead, largely unchallenged, with advanced computer programs that, among other outcomes, could step up the pace of data sharing with state tax units and lead to an essentially return-free system that simply presents most filers with a statement of debits or credits. Clearly alarmed by the Big Brother implications of these and allied developments, Burnham proposes without probing a series of possible reforms, including stricter oversight of the agency, elimination of administrative responsibilities that invite abuse (e.g., passing on the exemption qualifications of nonprofit groups), and consideration of a value-added tax like that levied by 43 foreign countries. A damning indictment of the IRS, which, for all its horror stories and reference virtues, makes for disappointingly dull reading. The 414-page text has organization charts, plus tabular material on delinquencies, seizures, and related subjects.

Pub Date: Feb. 5th, 1989
Publisher: Random House