This Week

Issue: "Building a better boycott," Oct. 4, 1997

Washington in brief

Knee deep: The House on Sept. 25 backed off its demand that American troops in Bosnia be home by next summer, voting to approve a $247.5 billion defense bill without its original amendment cutting off funds for operations in Bosnia if President Clinton did not complete the troop withdrawal as promised by next June 30. Lawmakers approved the compromise defense-spending bill 356-65 after House and Senate negotiators ironed out differences between the two chambers. Under the compromise, all the president must do to extend the Bosnia deployment into July and beyond is to formally state a reason to Congress by May 15, 1998. The measure also gives Mr. Clinton the power to kill the B-2 project. Payback time: Also on Sept. 25, the House ignored a presidential veto threat and approved an amendment to a $31.7 billion spending bill that would reimburse the legal costs of any citizen wrongfully prosecuted. White House officials issued a statement saying the measure "would have a chilling effect on prosecutorial discretion." The amendment by Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) expands on a provision giving financial relief to members of Congress and their staff when they prevail in an improper prosecution. "It ought to protect anybody who is abused by a suit that is not substantially justified," Rep. Hyde declared. In a separate vote, the House approved a boost in funding for the Legal Services Corporation, an agency conservatives have fought since the Reagan era because of its pursuit of liberal activist causes through the courts. The LSC was designed with the ostensible purpose of assisting the poor with legal expenses. Help is on its way: With only two votes in opposition, the Senate passed a measure streamlining the process for approving drugs and medical devices, and making it easier for seriously ill people to obtain experimental drugs. Maura Kealey of the Ralph Nader-founded Public Citizen called the Senate action the "worst thing to happen to public safety in a long time." The House began work on its version of the bill.

The power of the ballot

Despite an election boycott by pro-democracy forces, Socialists in Serbia still fell short of a majority needed to control the national legislature, forcing the party of powerful Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to enter into a power-sharing arrangement with the nationalistic Radical Party. Socialists have never had to share power in the 10 years since Mr. Milosevic gained control of the party. Four years after being routed by leftists, Poland's reconstituted Solidarity movement turned the tables, leading an alliance that won a plurality of the vote in parliamentary elections. Solidarity, the conservative trade union group that helped topple communism in Poland in 1989, is expected to work with the centrist Freedom Union and one or two small parties to form a coalition government.

IRS: Increase Respect Soon?

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Washington's mammoth tax-collecting agency started the week with a handful of defenders. On the record, Sen. Richard Bryan (D-Nev.) declared the Internal Revenue Service "an easy target for criticism and a convenient whipping boy" for Republicans. Off the record, White House officials questioned the motives of GOP senators leading a probe into abuses by the IRS, saying Republicans merely wanted a platform to promote tax simplification. The whispering campaign ended after tearful taxpayer testimony and a parade of whistleblowing IRS agents testifying behind beige cloth screens through electronic voice scramblers. Even IRS chief Michael Dolan bailed out: "No one should have to endure what these citizens describe as their experience at the hands of the tax system." Senators heard testimony that the agency, though barred by a 1988 law from considering individual collection rates in evaluating agents' performance, routinely ranks the efficiency of IRS offices and regions as a whole according to collections. One anonymous IRS inspector said that "statistics drive the organization.... The tail wags the dog." Other witnesses spoke of vindictive agents ("retaliation in our office is almost on a daily basis") and corrupt managers ("[agents told] not to conduct audits of particular taxpayers who happen to be personal friends"). One agent, a 15-year veteran, testified without identity protection. Houston agent Jennifer Long told senators she witnessed "IRS management manipulate income tax return figures just to increase their office or division collection statistics." She said complaints about such abuses "were routinely ignored." Ms. Long also told of having to audit people so poor they couldn't afford air conditioning for their sweltering Houston homes. The anonymous agents corroborated Ms. Long's account. Mr. Dolan, the IRS's acting commissioner, said the agency will immediately end the practice of ranking district offices by collections. In 45 days, he said, he will summon hundreds of top IRS district executives to Washington to discuss the finance committee's findings: "There are a number of actions we have to take immediately to try to preclude the kind of ... incidents that you saw in this committee earlier this week."


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