By: Tori B. Powell
As the economy still grapples with COVID-19’s devastating impacts, a House of Representatives Oversight and Reform subcommittee pointed towards the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) response to the virus in what they said are failed efforts to support American taxpayers. At a Wednesday morning hearing, the subcommittee demanded modernization of the agency’s system, benefit payments distributed in a timely and equitable manner, and an overall stronger internal infrastructure.
Chairman Gerry Connolly (D-VA) said that mandates in wake of the Coronavirus were too quickly enforced and that the IRS’ antiquated information technology systems prevented substantial help from being provided to the nation.
“Today when the American people are relying on the IRS the most, the agency is gasping for air,” Connolly said at the live hearing broadcasted on C-SPAN. “Decades of deliberate starvation of the IRS prompted a dire financial situation and left an agency with what a taxpayer advocate referred to as a ‘prehistoric’ infrastructure.”
But the unprecedented circumstances and challenging pressures put onto the criticized bureau is what some at the hearing said they considered harsh.
IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig emphasized the agency’s reportedly good intentions to pay every eligible citizen on time. He also highlighted his own background to demonstrate the sympathy he said he has towards different communities. According to Rettig, he’s the first refugee commissioner in the IRS’s history and also the first to have a son or daughter who was an active-duty US military deploy.
“I very much understand the concepts that each of you are bringing,” he said. “I take these concepts to heart.”
Nonetheless, Rettig was also sure to confirm that there are certain systematic problems within the IRS that need to change in order to avoid the issues brought up by complainants in the future.
“We have to get more resources to the IRS,” he said. “Unfortunately we have not seen that from the Trump Administration and when the IRS doesn’t have enough resources, the fact of the matter is that the rich get richer.”
The commissioner said that the IRS in recent years has undergone “dramatic” and “breathtaking” cuts in their workforce and funding. According to the Congressional Budget Office that Connolly pointed out, lawmakers in the 2010 to 2018 Republican-led Congress cut the IRS’ budget by 20% in inflation-adjusted dollars, which resulted in a 22% staff reduction. Connolly said that 30% of these reductions were in enforcement positions at the agency.
IRS National Taxpayer Advocate Erin Collins pointed out that these cutbacks can translate into delayed payments to citizens or no payments at all, which is detrimental for those that depend on it. She said that the IRS was responsible for dispersing payments to nearly 160 million eligible Americans this year.
“As of September 19, the IRS estimated it had a backlog of about 5.8 million pieces, including an estimated 2.8 million unopened returns,” Collins said. “For taxpayers counting on those refunds to meet their basic living needs, the delays have been particularly painful.”
She mentioned that accessibility was a problem as well when the pandemic resulted in toll-free telephone lines at the IRS to be shut down, prohibiting the estimated 100 million calls and visits that the agency typically receives in a year. Like many others at the hearing, Collins drilled in the need for an updated IT system to better accommodate the many Americans that need help during this time.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office’s Information Technology and Cybersecurity Director Vijay D’Souza said that the IRS has acknowledged the problems with its system technology and has made efforts to solve them.
He said that the IRS undergoes ongoing and consistent assessments of system operations where 18 new cybersecurity recommendations were identified, including a total of 132 that remained outstanding. These recommendations featured computer problems which caused phone calls to disconnect in the middle of conversations and old programming that resulted in computer lags at IRS customer service offices.
“As of today the IRS has addressed recommendations and have taken steps to address others,” D’Souza said. “We recently started work where we will update this assessment: every aspect of it, including cybersecurity operations and modernization efforts.”
But despite what action actually comes, the House Oversight and Reform subcommittee agreed that change needs to happen. Millions of Americans rely on the IRS’ services, and as the nation still deals with COVID-19, the subcommittee emphasized taxpayer rights towards a better-functioning, fair, and updated Internal Revenue Service.