The victim didn't complain to me. I heard about his troubles in a round-about way and had to coax him to talk about them.

He's a small businessman. His major customer is Uncle Sam -- various agencies of the United States government.

He has worked hard to build his little company into a viable organization, but he's plagued by one major problem. His biggest customer is bad pay. Yet his biggest customer expects him to be good pay.

It works like this: On the 15th of each month, the law says he must pay over to the government all the taxes he has withheld from his employees' paychecks during the previous month. If he fails to pay on time, Congress has decreed that interest and penalties must be assessed.

I had been told that this businessman was behind in his withholding payments because several government agencies are many months late in paying their bills. So I asked him if the sotry I had heard was true.

At first, he was incommunicative.

After a while, I said, "I can guess why you don't want to be identified as a complainer. You're afraid that if you talk to me, the agencies that owe you money will stop buying from you." He murmured a few cautious words of agreement. "All right," I said, "I give you my word that I won't identify you. Tell me about the problem."

That opened him up, and he confirmed that he was in trouble with IRS. "When I'm faced with a choice between paying my employees or sending the government a check for the withholding money," he said, "I pay my employees and take my chances. I've tried to explain to the IRS that if the government would pay its bills within a reasonable time, I wouldn't have to choose between paying one or the other. I could pay everybody.But IRS says it's sorry, that's not a valid excuse for failing to comply with the law. I've borrowed all I can borrow at the bank, so I'm in the position of paying interest to the bank on the money the government owes me and paying interest and penalties to the government for being late with my monthly payment of taxes. And I see no way out of the trap."

After we concluded our conversation, I phoned two friends who do a brisk business with the government. They confirmed that government agencies frequently take an unreasonably long time to settle their accounts.

One said, "Part of it is red tape, part of it is inefficiency in some government offices, and a big part of it must be blamed on Congress for failing to pass appropriations bills on time. What am I supposed to do when a good customer calls and says, 'Hey, Joe, I know we still owe you a big bill, but we just don't have the money to pay you yet, and meantime we need some more stuff'? What should I do, tell them they're bad pay and I don't want their business?"

The other man said, "I've been doing business with the government for 40 years -- everybody from the White House on down. Most of the oldtimers know me, they know my merchandise is high quality, my prices are low, and my service is dependable. They try to be fair in their dealings with me.

"Yes, the government can be very slow pay sometimes, but it doesn't bother me as much as it does the smaller companies that don't have the capital to carry delinquent accounts. But I'll tell you, every once in a while I run into an absolutely frustrating tangle. Like right now, I've been 10 months trying to collect on a $10,000 order, but they still haven't been able to get their paperwork straightened out."

A. James Golato, spokesman for IRS, is sympathetic but has little choice. He says that IRS "must administer the tax laws as passed by Congress." These laws require that employers "must deposit income and Social Security taxes withheld from their employees by certain dates. If they are late, the law provides for interest and penalties."

Is the law utterly inflexible? Golato says IRS has authority to consider "any sound reason" for failure to pay taxes when due. He adds:

"If a reasonable cause for delay is clearly shown, the penalty will not be assessed. Reasonable causes include such things as the death or serious illness of a taxpayer, or the lack of funds -- but only if the taxpayer can demonstrate that the lack of funds occurred despite the exercise of ordinary care and prudence."

You mean like putting slow-pay government agencies on c.o.d.?