THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT IN SIGNING INTERNAL REVENUE SERVICE RESTRUCTURING AND REFORM ACT
The East Room
1:40 P.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much. Ladies and gentlemen, before I make my statement, I would like to amplify a little bit on the remarks I made earlier this morning on the death of Alan Shepard.
He is one of the great heroes of modern America -- our first astronaut, our first American in space. None of us who were alive then will ever forget him sitting so calmly in Freedom 7, atop a slender and sometimes unreliable Mercury Redstone rocket. As President Kennedy observed at the time, America chose to make this first risky launch in full view of the world. And "our entire nation, in his words, which risked much, gained much."
Alan Shepard understood the odds; he faced them bravely. And he led our country and all humanity beyond the bounds of our planet, across a truly new frontier, into the new era of space exploration.
A decade later, in 1971, Commander Shepard fought his way back from a debilitating ear infection to become the Commander of Apollo 14, and the fifth person to walk on the moon. On behalf of myself and Mr. Bowles, I can't help noting that there on the moon he lived every golfer's dream -- (laughter) -- taking his six iron and hitting the ball, in his words, "for miles and miles." (Laughter.)
Alan Shepard truly had the right stuff. His service will always loom large in America's history. I extend to his wife, Louise, his family, and his colleagues in the Navy and at NASA, the thanks of a grateful nation and our thoughts and prayers.
Now, I'd like to join Secretary Rubin in thanking Commissioner Rossotti, the Vice President, and you, Mr. Secretary, for what you have done. But I especially want to acknowledge the presence of all the members of Congress here. And in particular, let me thank Senator Kerrey and Congressman Portman, Senator Roth, Senator Moynihan, Senator Grassley, Congressman Archer, Congressman Rangel, Congress Cardin for their leading work that makes it possible for me to sign into law today the Internal Revenue Service Restructuring and Reform Act. The bill is a culmination of the commitment and the hard work of many people, but especially those whom I have just mentioned.
We've all worked hard to give the American people an IRS that reflects America's values and respects America's taxpayers. Two years ago I was proud to sign into law a Taxpayer Bill of Rights -- again, passed by an overwhelming bipartisan majority of the Congress -- that has helped to make the IRS fairer and more responsive. Under the leadership of the Vice President and Secretary Rubin, we've upgraded customer service at the IRS, appointing Charles Rossotti, a seasoned, private-sector CEO, to reshape the agency, expanding office hours and phone hours, making it easier to file taxes over the telephone or by computer. We've created problem-solving days where taxpayers can work face to face with IRS customer service representatives.
For the first time this year, IRS helplines were open for the full 24 hours preceding the final filing deadline, April 15th. And in 1999, they will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, all year long. This year, 40 million more callers heard a human voice, not a busy signal, when they called an IRS helpline. Nearly 25 million taxpayers took advantage of our new high-tech filing options -- that's a 25 percent increase from the previous year.
Our streamlined IRS web page had nearly half a billion hits this year. All this has meant quicker refunds, less paperwork, and fewer hassles for American taxpayers.
But clearly, there is more to do to build an IRS for the 21st century. This bill takes important steps in that direction. It will help the IRS to serve taxpayers as well as the best private companies serve their customers, building on efforts to offer simple high-tech options for filing taxes and making tax forms more easily available over the Internet.
As Secretary Rubin has said, it expands taxpayer rights, extending refund periods, protecting innocent spouses, cutting penalties in half for 2.5 million taxpayers who are paying what they owe on installment plans. In all these ways the bill will give the American people an IRS they deserve.
Again, let me thank the Congress for helping the IRS to meet the challenge of serving taxpayers by giving it the time it needs also to meet the challenge of the year 2000 computer conversion. I call on the Congress to fully fund our Year 2000 effort to allow all federal agencies to respond flexibly to unforeseen difficulties that are sure to arise.
This bill shows what we can do when we work together, when we put the progress of America ahead of our partisan concerns, when we put our people over politics. That is how we have balanced the budget for the first time in 30 years while cutting taxes, expanding trade and investing in our people. It is how I believe we can continue to make the tax code fairer for our people.
I have asked Congress to provide targeted tax relief for American families for child care, to expand pensions, to spur school construction, to protect our environment. In the context of comprehensive legislation to protect our children from tobacco, I have supported the effort to address the marriage penalty, by cutting taxes for American families.
Everyone of these tax cuts is prudent, bipartisan and fully paid for. For 29 years, our country ran up large deficits, quadrupling our debt in the 12 years before I became President. It caused us to fall behind in the global economy. It caused our incomes to stagnate. Now we're on the verge of achieving our first balanced budget and our first surplus in a generation. And our economy is the envy of the world.
Fiscal responsibility has driven this economic expansion. A return to irresponsibility would put that prosperity at risk. After 29 years, it seems to me it's worth taking one year to address the challenge of fixing the Social Security system before we start spending the surplus on tax cuts or new spending programs, however worthy they might be.
The American people expect us to have the good sense to rack up the surplus before we spend it, and to save Social Security first. I know there are many people who think we should spend the surplus now, and spend hundreds of billions of dollars on tax cuts before we have the bipartisan plan to save Social Security. I think it's the wrong course for America, in no small measure because we haven't fixed the price tag for saving Social Security and because, as we all know, we can't really predict with any absolute certainty what will happen 10 or 15 years from now.
I believe we should tell our children and our grandchildren that we think enough of them and their future that we're going to resist spending a penny of the surplus on things that I would very much like to spend it on -- or you would -- until we have met our basic obligation to our future, passing a bipartisan plan to save Social Security, which I am convinced the Congress will do early next year. I do not intend to waver from my commitment to future generations, and I hope the rest of us will do the same.
Now it is my honor to sign into law the Internal Revenue Service Restructuring and Reform Act. I would like to ask all the members of Congress to come up here and join me on the stage. Thank you very much. (Applause.)
END 1:50 P.M. EDT