View Header


Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release October 10, 1997
                             PRESS BRIEFING BY 

The Briefing Room

12:00 P.M. EDT

SECRETARY RUBIN: Why don't we do this. You all heard the President and the Vice President and they spoke forcefully about the focus we've had on the Internal Revenue Service, the focus that we've been intent on for quite some long time now. And as the President said, we started at the beginning of his administration and over the last couple of years we've had a very intense effort on dealing with the issues in the IRS. The issues have developed over years, in some cases decades. We have made progress, we have made real change.

On the other hand, there's a lot to do. We recognize there's a lot to do. We are committed to, over time, resolving the problems that have developed over a long period of time and developing the IRS the American people deserve.

And with that, Larry Summers, Gene Sperling and I would be delighted to respond to any questions you may have. And we have others who are with us who are experts in the various areas that relate to reforming the IRS.

Q Secretary Rubin, how do you expect to regain the trust of taxpayers if you don't establish an oversight board that is wholely independent of the Treasury Department rather than one that reports to the Treasury?

SECRETARY RUBIN: I think there's only one way you recover the trust of the taxpayers and that is by having an IRS that does its job and does its job well. And that has been the animating key in everything that we have done over the last couple of years and will be the animating key going forward.

And I think -- and I might add, I think that while there clearly have been abuses and those abuses are intolerable and, as the President said, even one abuse is too many, it is also true that there are people who have had very good experiences from the IRS and we've received letters from these people. But the overall point is this: You win the trust of the American people with your performance, and we are committed to building an IRS that will be the IRS the American people deserve, and by doing that we will regain their confidence.

Q Do you think that the present tax code is fair, or do you have anything in mind to change it in any way?

SECRETARY RUBIN: I think the question of the tax code is one that is very complicated. I think that as you approach the question of tax reform, which is I guess the question that you're raising, you really have to have, at least in our judgment, you have to have several criteria. Number one, what effect it will have on the economy, because certainly you don't want to make changes that are going to have an unfavorable effect. Will the changes be fair, because you certainly don't want to make changes that are going to be unfair, that will increase the burden on middle-income and lower-income Americans. Number three, will it simplify the tax system. And, number four, is it at least deficit neutral.

By that set of standards, in my judgment at least, any proposal for tax reform should be judged. And a good example is the flat tax which has been around now for quite some time, but in the last two or three years has been particularly debated. And I don't think there's any question but if you take a look at the flat tax and you compare it to those standards, what you will find is that it shifts the tax burden from upper-income people whose tax burdens will be reduced to middle-income people who will pay more. And I don't think there's any viable argument that it will improve the economy.

Q I believe the packages intended to protect the rights of taxpayers -- I don't see anything in the package, and it's not your intent, is it, to reduce the power of the IRS?

SECRETARY RUBIN: The IRS is charged with collecting the nation's taxes. And as I said in my remarks, that's about 95 percent of the funding of the federal government. On the other hand, it is absolutely imperative that that be done in a way that is sensitive to the taxpayers with whom it's dealing, that is used -- a private sector term in the world that I came out of -- that it be customer-friendly. And what our set of proposals is designed to do is to make sure the taxpayers rights are respected and the taxpayers are dealt with in a professional and sensible fashion, while at the same time collecting the nation's revenues.

Q The ability of the IRS to audit, to assess taxes unilaterally, and then to seize property when those assessments aren't paid, this doesn't change, does it?

SECRETARY RUBIN: Well, what it does do -- let me ask Larry Summers, our Deputy Secretary, to expand on this -- what it does do, it does not -- what it does, is designed to do, is to make sure that as the IRS goes about its business of collecting taxes, it deals with the taxpayers in a fair and professional fashion. In that respect, certain changes have been made with respect to collection and levy and making sure the taxpayers who might be subject to undue hardship have redress, and in effect as a consequence, are treated fairly and properly.

And, Larry, you might want to expand on that.

DEPUTY SECRETARY SUMMERS: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

The concern is with abuses of power, and abuses of power are constrained by rights and constrained by accountability. Measures that were announced today expand taxpayer's rights in a number of important respects.

First, it gives taxpayers the right -- on a category of cases -- innocent spouse cases, taxpayers will have expanded rights to get a waiver of their taxes because they were disadvantaged by a dishonest spouse. Second, taxpayers will have the right to get installment payment treatment, where that is necessary, to enable to meet their obligations. Third, they will have an expanded right to get recourse to tax court in smaller cases with expedited procedure than had been the case previously. Fourth, they will have the right to receive refunds even in situations where, because of disability or illness, they had been delayed and prevented from filing within the normal time limit.

Beyond those specific rights, their accountability of the IRS is substantially augmented by the expanded taxpayer advocate program and by the citizens' action panels. Those taxpayer advocates, which handled 300,000 cases last year in an average of 38 days, will become much better known as a result of these procedures and will have expanded authority to delay or cancel collection orders or liens in situations where it would cause undue hardship or in situations where a matter has simply played out too long or would impose excessive burdens on taxpayers. Accountability is further increases by the availability of a board of trustees and by citizens' action panels in each of the IRS districts.

Q Mr. Secretary, is there a policy reason why the administration seems to want to do what you have done today, rather than to attempt to fix the tax code, which has become a big issue, of course, with many Republicans?

SECRETARY RUBIN: Well, I think -- you know, Helen had basically asked the same question.

Q Could you expand a little? You don't seem to want to touch that.

SECRETARY RUBIN: No, I don't think that's right. In fact, it's not right. In the tax cuts that were enacted in this year which, as you know, had a goodly number of proposals that we had proposed that resulted in middle class tax cuts -- the education tax cut, the child tax credit and we were very much in favor of the IRAs, the increased savings incentives.

We were dealing with the tax codes in a way that was designed to reduce taxes from middle income taxpayers, as well as for better enabling them to engage in the kind of activity that will equip them for modern economy -- education and the like. We almost had almost -- I think it was 48 or 50 -- simplification measures that were included in the tax bill that was enacted this year. It didn't receive much publicity, but each one of those in some way or other will help simplify the code.

We are very much in favor of simplification and we are very open to people's ideas with respect to simplification. Beyond that, as you start getting into totally different structures, I think you have to deal with the criteria that I mentioned before, with respect to Helen. And while it's very simple to attack the tax code and very simple to say your in favor of tax reform, it becomes much more complicated once you start looking at issues of fairness, how are the middle income people going to be treated, how do you avoid reducing taxes for upper income people and shifting that burden to lower income people.

And when you're talking to those kinds of issues, I think tax reform becomes a very, very complicated issue. But we are very much in favor of simplification. We've had simplification measures in the tax bill -- say, almost 50 in the tax bill that was enacted this year, and we are totally open minded to people's ideas in that respect -- simplification.

Q -- a little bit more down to earth on the matter of these -- lung power seems to work around here -- in the matter of these reforms. We heard a bit in the third person, but those folks who came down to Capitol Hill with anguishing complaints -- some of them were addressed when they told the local paper, some of them only when the Congressional committee announced that they were holding hearings they got in contact with the committee.

Now that you've done these reforms, if any of these things happen to me or these people in the room here, what can we do we couldn't do before?

SECRETARY RUBIN: The answer to that question is yes. And while we have been engaged in this effort, and I think an effort that is having real effect, to improve the IRS for certainly the two years I've been Secretary and there were important efforts before that in this administration -- the measures that we announced today, in addition to measures that have been in place over the last year or so are very much responsive to the kinds of abuses that were outlined or were discussed at the hearing. And let me again ask Deputy Secretary Summers if he'd expand on that.

Q What could I do I couldn't do before?

DEPUTY SECRETARY SUMMERS: There are three things, three key things that come out of the hearings that you will be able to do. First, you will gain the knowledge to go to the taxpayers advocate who could, if involved, have resolved many of these problems much more quickly. IRS collection officers will notify you about the taxpayers advocate. You will have the opportunity -- the taxpayers advocate will be publicized and the taxpayers advocate will have expanded authority to cease the collection on the basis of a far wider range of circumstances than has been the case earlier.

Second, you will have recourse to the citizens panels. The citizens panels will have the ability to work with you to follow up on your case, to ensure that you get a satisfactory response from the local taxpayers advocate, and in the event you do not get a satisfactory response from the local taxpayers advocate, to refer your case upwards to the national taxpayer advocate to make sure that action is taken.

Third, you will benefit from, depending on the specifics of the case, a variety of procedural protections. I mentioned earlier the innocent spouse rules, which would have applied in two of the four cases, from what I understand, in the hearings. You will also have access to expanded clinics where you can receive tax law advice, easier recourse to tax court than has been the case previously.

Q Secretary Rubin, are you worried about the decline or the impact on voluntary compliance, given all this criticism, and also your haste to reform the IRS?

SECRETARY RUBIN: Ours is not a haste to reform the IRS. We started on this -- I'll tell you, I've been Secretary now for close to three years, and we have been focused on this for that entire -- there's no haste in this. We identified the problem long before any of the current focus -- long before the hearings, long before the greatly increased media focus. We were focused on the question of what are the problems at the IRS, many of which had developed over a long period of time, and what could we do to get the IRS back on the right track.

By the time you got to these current hearings, we had had almost a two-year effort underway with respect to what we called an MMB, but it was an oversight board within Treasury, to start getting this thing back on the right track. And we have made some real progress. We took a technology thing that was a mess. We cancelled a whole bunch of contracts. We put out a blueprint that has been very well received, that's a framework for going forward. We've increased electronic filing and telefiling. We have made some real improvements and real changes. And there's no question there's an enormous amount to do going forward.

Now, but all of that was designed in part to make sure that we have an IRS that deals with people in such a fashion that it will maintain the respect -- somebody asked this question before -- maintain the respect of the American people. And I think having the respect of the American people is central to maintaining our voluntary system. And that's why we have to continue to have the kind of focus that we've had over the last couple of years going forward, not only with us and the people over there now, but the people who come after us. And it's for that reason that we made a number of the changes today to make sure that we have institutionalized the kind of focus that we've had.

Q Are you worried about the effectiveness, though, on the voluntary compliance of 87 percent of the public that pays their taxes?

SECRETARY RUBIN: I think that responsible and constructive criticism is always useful -- is useful and important, because I think that it contributes to the effort -- the absolutely vital effort to create the kind of IRS the American people deserve. I think that it is very important that that criticism be conducted in a constructive fashion for the very reason that you said.

Gene, do you want to expand on that?

MR. SPERLING: Just in the sense of the reforms, one of the points I just wanted to stress that Larry made is the taxpayer advocate is itself a creation of one of the reforms done through one of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights by the President. As Larry suggested, there are 300,000 cases handled, most in an average time of 38 days. The taxpayer advocate has real authority and power, ability to issue a taxpayers assistance order, so if somebody was unfairly having their wages garnished or a small business was going to have a lump sum that was going to put them out of business, the taxpayer advocate has the authority to put a stay on that or resolve it.

Now, over 30,000 times where there was a taxpayer order requested, it was resolved successfully in 76 percent of the times. In those 24 percent of the times where it wasn't, mostly it was because the law was too strict on what a hardship was. This is expanding that reform and expanding the authority of the taxpayer advocate. So you really need to look just at the taxpayer advocate to see the degree the that administration had taken actions on this and is expanding that.

Now, a reasonable thing someone could suggest is that however effective the taxpayer advocate had been, the sense that it was within the IRS might have given some people who had not been through it a lack of confidence that it would be independent. By creating a citizens advocacy panel, you now have a place where people can come that is wholly independent; where they can talk with people, where they could get assistance, where they can have someone instruct them on how to work through the system, and where they can come if they feel that the taxpayer advocate has not worked well.

So I think what you're seeing is not a sudden interest in this, but an expansion of reforms that very much address the feeling many Americans have that they want to know that there is a place that they can come to where they can have an advocate, somebody on their side. The citizens advocacy panels provide a one-two punch -- they allow a place where citizens can go when they have a complaint that's independent of the IRS, and it provides a place that can audit the local IRS taxpayer advocate and ensure that it is performing properly. And it gives the citizen a greater sense of independent power and authority to make sure that their claims and concerns are heard.

Q On the subject of a global warming in taxes, are you guys looking at the energy tax -- (laughter) -- now, there is a segue here -- (laughter) -- an energy tax as an option to help cut greenhouse emissions? And when do you expect a memo on climate change to go to the President?

MR. SPERLING: A memo to the President has gone in several days ago, to the President, that laid out, as with most decisions like this, a few options. We have over 10 Cabinet members involved, 10 Cabinet departments involved in this. And we've had a very good process which myself and Katie McGinty and Dan Tarullo have coordinated. And we've put in options and each Cabinet member has allied themselves with one option or another. But there are a variety of recommendations there and the President and Vice President are likely to -- may take segments from each of the different options.

I will say that as much as there has been a variety of opinion, I think that with the conversations it has helped bring people together, not drive them apart. And while there have been many different options, I do not know of any Cabinet member or senior advisor to the President who has recommended a gas or direct energy tax as a solution to this important problem.

SECRETARY RUBIN: I just want to respond a little bit more on the question, because I think you've asked a very important question. I think anything that contributes to creating a better IRS is going to increase voluntary compliance. And I think constructive criticism -- I think bringing problems to the attention of the Treasury, to the attention of the IRS is constructive. I think it behooves all of us -- I think it's incumbent upon all of us to remain constructive and responsible in the way that we approach this problem, because if you go beyond that then I think you are adversely affecting -- or you at least run the risk of adversely affecting our voluntary tax system.

Q Secretary Rubin, you said you've been working on this for, like, three years, and you're talking about simplification. But there are some surface issues that it seems were very simple to handle and deal with right away, like rewriting existing forms in language people can understand. I mean, I mean for years, taxpayers have been hollering they don't understand.

SECRETARY RUBIN: You've got it. (Laughter.) And as you know from the announcement we made today, we're committed, number one, to taking notices and turning them into language that people can understand; and, number two, taking the E-Z form and reforming it in about two and half years.

Q Well, why so long on these surface issues?

SECRETARY RUBIN: Oh, I think the answer is you can't do everything at once and we have done enormous -- we really have done a lot over the last two years. Number two, I think that our NPR process and our other internal process has really helped us to identify the kinds of issues that people care most about. And having identified, that we're now focused on them and we're going to move forward to resolve them.

Q And, lastly, the IRS offices, keeping them open on Saturdays during filing season?

SECRETARY RUBIN: But I think your question actually in a sense makes a very interesting point: these are the kinds of issues people care about. But the combination of what the NPR did with Treasury, working with frontline employees has really brought to the fore the kinds of issues that we need to focus on, in addition to the very important fundamental issues that we've worked on in the last couple years. And we've put in place a program now that should take us from where we are to where we need to be on those issues.

Q And lastly, as I said, keeping the IRS office open on Saturdays during the filing season -- are you already taking credit for that? Because I understand in some states it's already happening.

SECRETARY RUBIN: We're not taking credit for anything. We're just saying we think it's a good idea and it should happen in all states and in all offices and that's what we're going to do.

Q Secretary Rubin, just to get back to the whole fear quotient issue, are you going to be taking these things on paper and going to be doing a mass mailing to the public? Are you going to be knocking on doors? How are you going to get the word out in terms of translating these recommendations into actions?

And, on a different issue, is the President frustrated with the status of the auto talks?

SECRETARY RUBIN: The auto talks?

Q Yes.

SECRETARY RUBIN: You mean with Japan? Is the President frustrated with the auto talks with Japan. If he has, he hasn't expressed it to me. I don't know -- Gene, have you heard express frustration?

Let me start with Japan. I actually have not heard him express frustration with respect to Japan on the auto talks. I think you've got a real issue with respect to Japan -- it's one we've discussed for a long time and you've heard me say this before -- it was framed by Prime Minister Hashimoto's comments earlier this year when he said, we need to have a strong economy with domestic demand-led growth and we have the avoid a significant and sustained increase in our external imbalances or surplus.

And that is the challenge that lies before Japan and, at least thus far, domestic demand and also with respect to the surpluses, in neither case has the challenge been met. But as they go forward -- if you take the objectives that Prime Minister Hashimoto set out and then you go forward, that is the set of objectives which we think is very important to Japan and the rest of the world they meet.

Q What about getting the word out -- back to my first question -- getting the word out about these reforms?

SECRETARY RUBIN: Well, one of the reasons for the taxpayer advocacy panels was precisely that, to make sure that every American knew that they had some place to go where they could have somebody be on their side and do with the IRS, and then work back through the taxpayer advocacy system. In addition, we will have additional -- we will actually allocate resources to -- when, in effect, will be bringing it to the attention of the American people the existence of our taxpayer advocacy system so that people know there's a place they can go to get redress if they have the kinds of problems that have been discussed in recent days.

Q Is this days or weeks when they're going to start to know about this? Is there a specific kind of timetable you have laid out to get the word out to the taxpayers about this?

SECRETARY RUBIN: I'd say today was pretty effective. We had the President of the United States discussing it. But what formal plans do we have? Do you know?

DEPUTY SECRETARY SUMMERS: I would just highlight that as an important in a way kickoff of this effort. The first problem resolution day will take place on November 15th, and there will be monthly problem resolution days thereafter on Saturdays where the IRS, local IRS offices will be open to receive complaints and to work through problems with taxpayers. The IRS I know has been extensively engaged in planning for those events, and we have been working with them and monitoring those plans to make sure that it is there and I suspect that the nation's press will make that date known and we will everything we can to make it known as well.

If I could just highlight one other point on notification. It's our expectation that IRS officials involved in collection actions will henceforth have to notify those they are working with on those collection actions of the taxpayer advocate and their recourse to the taxpayer advocate. Clearly, lack of information has been an important problem in the past and it's one we want to solve.

Q -- toll-free number for IRS complaints?

MR. SPERLING: Can I just stress one thing on the phones, which is in all of this I would lot lose one thing that will probably, for many taxpayers, be one of the most important things in helping them deal with things in their day-by-day work life, which is that the amount that the telephones that the IRS has opened, which is now five days a week, 12 hours, or 60 hours, on January 1, '98 goes to six days a week, 16 hours, and then on January 1, '99 to seven days, 124 hours. That's expanding from 60 hours to 168 hours for a lot -- for so many working families, one of the hardest things is how to deal with these when you are working full-time during the day, and I think that for a lot of -- in terms of being, as Secretary Rubin said, sensitive to customer needs and customer service, this will be a reform that will be very significant in the lives of people who need to deal with the IRS in any way, shape or form.

Q Can you give us a sense of what the --

Q Gene, did you have anything on the Japan auto talks?

MR. SPERLING: I don't want to report on the Japan auto talks right now; you need to consult with Charlene more. Just to say that, clearly, we are not satisfied with everything that's going on in the dealership area and other things. In auto parts, there has certainly been more progress, but even there, there is more we would like to see happen, ensuring that we have full access, that American cars and auto parts made by American workers have full access -- or better access to the Japanese market. And we have met among this in preparation for the talks, but I don't want to comment on them without further consultation with Charlene.

Q Secretary Rubin, in terms of the global warming treaty, the President has received a lot of economic advice. Do you feel that it would impact the economy adversely if the United States were to go to binding targets before the year 2010? Have you advised him to perhaps take a slower approach?

SECRETARY RUBIN: I think Gene said it very well. I think we've had a good process, he's heard a lot of comment from a lot of people. It's a very complicated and difficult issue. I think all of us -- I don't know of anybody involved that hasn't agreed with the view that the science is very serious and this is an issue that the world needs to deal with. He has been very carefully weighing and balancing environmental and economic considerations and he's working his way toward resolving these issues in I think a very constructive fashion.

Q But do you personally feel that it could have an economic impact if the limits are too high or the limits are high for developing countries?

SECRETARY RUBIN: Well, why don't we wait until the President announces his decisions, and then we'll discuss all the ramifications of the decisions he makes.

MR. SPERLING: I can say the following. I think that for those of us who have been involved in this -- Deputy Secretary Summers and Secretary Rubin and Katie McGinty and Secretary Pena, Browner and a variety of Cabinet members -- I think the one very clear instruction we had was that in this debate there are some who do not think the science is serious enough to compel action. We think of that as being one extreme.

There are others, those who would suggest completely unrealistic targets that you've seen coming out of some parts of Europe that we think that have clearly negative impacts on the economy. And what the President very much instructed us was to reject both of those extremes and to try to find precisely that set of policies and targets and timetables that would allow us to deal with this compelling environmental problem in a way that maintained what has been the strength of his presidency, which is the strength of this economy.

Q Getting back to the IRS issues, can you give a sense of how many of these can you proceed with on your own and what of these require the approval of Congress before you can move?

SECRETARY RUBIN: Certain of these, clearly, are you going to require congressional action. The board of trustees will require congressional action. The citizens' advocacy panels will require congressional action. In the area of the taxpayer bill of rights, a lot of that will require congressional action. A lot of the national performance review measures will. Some of this we can do ourselves.

Do you want to get into the specifics of it?

DEPUTY SECRETARY SUMMERS: I'll say a little more.

SECRETARY RUBIN: Yes, you want to add to that?

DEPUTY SECRETARY SUMMERS: The taxpayer bill of rights is primarily comprised of tax legislation and much of that would require legislative action, as would many of the administrative changes the Secretary referred to.

There are parts of this that can be done simply through administrative action at the IRS -- for example, answering the telephones. However, even here, it is very important that we have appropriate legislation to implement some of the things on which there is widespread agreement in terms of the need for more personnel flexibility at the IRS, in terms of the capacity of the Commissioner to recruit highly-skilled people with specific expertise in non-standard ways. And that legislation, if enacted, will make it much easier for us to achieve the kind of direction, the kind of recruitment that will be very effective in carrying out the administrative part of the changes that will promote taxpayer -- obviously, also, appropriations and making sure that we have adequate resources to meet these customer service responsibilities have an important role as well.

SECRETARY RUBIN: Things like changing the performance measures, the November 15th date and those kind of things, we can do ourselves. But it's very important we work with Congress on this because an awful lot is going to require legislation. As Larry said, we also, on a long-term basis, have to have appropriate appropriations support.

Q Is there any chance for a compromise with Kerrey and Portman at this point on their legislation? And would you -- is there any greater role for the private sector that you would envision in the operations of the IRS, beyond what you've outlined today?

SECRETARY RUBIN: Well, firstly, I think that Kerrey -- and I think I said this in my remarks -- I think Senator Kerrey and Rob Portman have made a very important contribution in terms of identifying issues and the great preponderance of legislation that they proposed we agree with either in whole or, at least, in large measure -- in Taxpayer Bill of Rights -- although even in that area, there is some difference we have fundamentally, there is a great deal in that area that we agree with, a great deal in the area of flexibilities, and in the various other areas that they have covered.

We think that private sector input is very important. And, as a consequence we have, in our existing legislative proposals we now have an advisory board; we've now amended that or we will be amending that legislation we submit to turn into a board of trustees. And one of the objectives of that is exactly that, to provide private sector expertise in the various areas that that can be important.

The other thing the board of trustees will do is to make sure that those who are responsible for reforming the IRS remain committed with the intensity that this administration has. And when you have a board of trustees that can report to Congress, can report publicly what a Secretary of the Treasury is doing, or Deputy Secretary or the Treasury itself, or an IRS -- I can tell you from having been part of this administration now for almost five years, that kind of public exposure and public accountability is an enormous, an enormously forceful and effective means of making sure that people do what they should do.

Q The question is, is there a possibility for a greater role than you've outlined today for the private sector and that could lead you to some sort of --

SECRETARY RUBIN: I think the problem that you run into -- I think what you do want to accomplish with the private sector is to get strong and effective private sector. I'm a great believer in the private sector -- I spent 26 years there, as you know. And I think the private sector can contribute a great deal to the process of IRS reform. I think we've accomplished that, or will have accomplished that with our board of trustees once we have submitted legislation, if legislation is enacted.

I think that the place where you run into a problem is when you cross the line from advice, from review, from the kind of holding accountable the watchdog or holding your feet to the fire kind of function that I've just been talking about and actually governing decisions. And when you get into making actual governing decisions, I then think you run into the kinds of problems that I discussed in my testimony and other places.

We have met with Congressman Portman, and we've met with the various others involved. And I think it would be very constructive to reach an agreement, if we can do that, on a total tax reform bill. I don't know whether -- and I think, as I say, in most of these areas, we have a large measure of agreement, and I think we could resolve our differences.


SECRETARY RUBIN?: What did I say?


SECRETARY RUBIN: Oh, that may be another area, but IRS reform was my reference.

Q So you are saying this can resolve --

SECRETARY RUBIN: No, I think on the question of the role of the private sector, we can reach agreement as long as we stick to private sector input, as long as we stick to holding people accountable through a view function and through report to Congress. I think the place where we differ is on the question of governing power and private sector individuals, and there, I think, are the problems I mentioned.

THE PRESS: Thank you.

END 12:29 P.M. EDT