To the glory of the Internal Revenue Service


“NOTOW YOU may only see a stack of receipts. But I see a story. I can see where this story is going. It doesn’t look good. These lines, uttered by an Internal Revenue Service agent in “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” a dark sci-fi comedy currently playing in theaters, are perfectly calibrated to strike fear into the hearts of Americans ahead of their date. tax filing deadline in April. 18th. The agent has a tidy paper trail on her desk as she conducts an audit. The reality is scarier, for the exact opposite reason. “Paper is the IRS‘s kryptonite”, Erin Collins, a watchdog within the IRS, recently told Congress. “The agency is buried in it.”

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The IRS entered this tax season with a backlog of 24 million returns, 20 times worse than normal, as it struggled to recover from pandemic disruption. Good luck to anyone seeking help over the phone: only one in nine callers reached an agent last year, according to Collins. Now in the midst of a hiring campaign, the IRS thinks it can clear the backlog by the end of 2022. But it will be up to two years behind in processing many returns. “It’s a crisis,” says Mark Everson, former head of the IRS. “Millions of people and businesses who were supposed to receive tax refunds don’t have that money yet. This is very detrimental to compliance.

Even without the pandemic, the IRS was struggling, victim of chronic underfunding. The agency’s expenses have fallen by almost 20% since 2010. At the same time, the number of tax declarations has increased by 20%. The backbone of the system, a national taxpayer database, is based on a 1960s computer language rarely taught in schools. A major component of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda is increased funding for the IRS. Yet that has stalled, along with much of the rest of his program.

It is difficult for legislators to generate enthusiasm for the IRS. Who likes to pay taxes? Even for those who recognize the social value, the act of filing tax returns is a chore. Form 1040, the basic document for filing personal income taxes, had only one page of instructions when it was introduced in 1913. This year’s version contains 230 pages of instructions in counting all the branches added to it, said Demian Brady of the National Taxpayers Union Foundation, an advocacy organization.

Like any good story, however, there is also a twist. Despite its awful backlog, the IRS has, from another point of view, had a very good pandemic. He played a vital role in providing support to the Americans. And it was surprisingly effective. For each of the three rounds of stimulus payments, the IRS was the conduit. Within two weeks of Mr. Biden signing the stimulus bill in March 2021, for example, he sent $325 billion via 127 million separate payments, mostly by direct bank deposit. Some people fell through the cracks and checks took longer. But most got the money quickly. The IRS operated with even greater frequency by paying out child tax credits each month.

In addition to distributing huge sums of money, the IRS also less. The government gave the unemployed tax breaks on their benefits and gave companies tax breaks to retain workers. He also expanded the Working Income Tax Credit, a subsidy for low-wage earners, one of the largest anti-poverty programs in the United States. In total, a poor family with two young children could expect to receive $20,000 from the IRS last year, double what they would normally receive. In total, the agency has disbursed more than $600 billion in pandemic-related support in 2021, equivalent to about two-thirds of Social Security spending in the federal government’s budget. “We’ve seen a substantial part of what was once the social safety net migrate from the public spending side of the federal ledger to the tax code,” points out Gordon Gray of the American Action Forum, a thinker. Tank.

By the agency’s own tally, Americans spend about 13 hours doing their taxes on average, mostly condensed into a frenetic spring weekend. In fact, it’s an improvement: in 2010, the estimate was 18 hours. The increased use of software such as TurboTax, manufactured by Intuit, has accelerated the filing process. We could do more: IRS provides a freeware option for poorer Americans, but does a poor job of advertising (the Federal Trade Commission is suing Intuit for allegedly enticing customers in the belief that the deposit would be free, only to charge them). There are also perennial calls for the IRS to collect tax via payroll deduction, allowing many to avoid filing tax returns altogether, as is common elsewhere, including Britain.

This, however, misses the point. IRS as a wellness provider. It needs a series of information from taxpayers in order to assess their eligibility. “We don’t look at stores like Walmart and say, oh, that’s so complicated. We say, hey, that’s convenient. A similar thing should apply to the income tax system to some degree” says William Gale of the Brookings Institution, another think tank. Using Form 1040 as a gateway to multiple social programs and tax credits means people don’t have to go to a series of agencies. different for each installment.

Finally, the IRS will work its way through the pandemic backlog. This, however, will do nothing to solve another serious problem: the degradation of its audit capabilities. About a fifth of agency staff are eligible for retirement, and many have taken covid as their time to leave. “We are losing exactly the kind of people we need to be able to maintain control of enforcement,” says a senior Treasury official. The IRS audited 0.3% of corporate tax returns filed in 2018, down from 1.6% in 2010. The number may well be lower this year. Charles Rettig, who heads the agency as commissioner, estimated that the government loses about $1 billion in tax revenue a year because of cheating. The agency is “outdated” compared to large companies, he says.

The answer to so many IRSThe woes of — outdated tech systems, congested phone lines, a threadbare app — are more funding. It is one of the few federal agencies that would generate a large and almost immediate return on investment if the government spent more. The hope for harassed tax officials is that the ups and downs of IRS his performances during the pandemic will have won him reluctant support in Washington, demonstrating that he is both overwhelmed and indispensable.

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