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Pandemic Highlights IRS’ Underfunding Issues

Two recent reports, one from the Internal Revenue Service and the other from the National Taxpayer Advocate, show how the ongoing pandemic exposed the effects of being an underfunded agency.

The IRS in its recently issued Progress Update report for fiscal year 2021, highlights some of those issues caused by the pandemic and how the agency is working to respond to them.

In a separate blog post about the report, IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig noted that the agency is “working through tax returns filed in 2021 and we are unable to answer an unprecedented number of telephone calls. Simply put, in many areas we are unable to deliver the amount of service and enforcement our taxpayers and tax system deserves and needs.”

He said the IRS will do all it can in 2022 and beyond with the resources it has, but added that “additional resources would help our employees do more in 2022 and beyond”.

Indeed, the progress report highlights that the agency “lost more critical full-time positions between FY 2020 and FY 2021, which included key enforcement personnel. These loses included revenue agents and revenue officers who audit returns and perform collection activities, as well as special agents in our Criminal Investigations organization who investigate tax-related crimes and other issues. Although our workforce increased since FY 2019, the IRS FY 2021 permanent workforce is still below the FY 2010 permanent workforce level.”

In spite of the challenges, the report highlighted some of the year’s successes, including distributing a third round of economic stimulus payments and other changes that were part of the American Rescue Plan, issuing a Spanish-language Form 1040, a 93 percent conviction rate within its Criminal Investigations division, and collecting $4.1 trillion in gross tax receipts.

National Taxpayer Advocate More Critical

While the IRS report focused on more of the positive accomplishments of the agency in FY 2021, the National Taxpayer Advocate’s annual report to Congress painted a more critical picture of a struggling agency, with one key agreement – that the agency needs more resources to effectively do its job.

“Over the past year, there has been a tendency to focus on the unique challenges posed by the pandemic and to attribute IRS service and technology shortcomings to these circumstances”, National Taxpayer Advocate Erin Collins wrote in the report. “There is no doubt the pandemic has had a big impact, but taxpayer services and technology at the IRS were inadequate long before the pandemic.”

For example, she notes that the number of individual returns has increased by 19 percent since FY 2010 while the agency’s baseline appropriation on an inflation-adjusted basis has decreased by nearly 20 percent. One way this has affected the agency was in its ability to answer calls, something it was struggling to do prior to the pandemic. In FY 2019, it received nearly 100 million calls, but answered only 29 million calls.

“That is simply a resource issue. Additional technology resources and more employees are required if the IRS is going to answer more telephone calls,” Collins said.

The NTA report also noted that as of December 18, 2021, the IRS reported 2.3 million unprocessed returns and amended returns.

“We have seen cases where processing has taken considerably longer than 20 weeks, including more than a year,” Collins said in the report. “The manual reviews will take substantial time, preventing the IRS from digging out of that hole in the foreseeable future.”

It also noted that the agency took months to process taxpayer responses to IRS notices, delaying refunds and in some cases leading to premature collection notices.

The limited resources also affected the Taxpayer Advocate Service from doing its job adequately.

“Congress created TAS to serve as a ‘safety net’ for taxpayers, but over the past few years, the combination of more cases, fewer experienced Case Advocates, and an inability to close cases due to limited IRS resources has caused the TAS safety net to fray,” Collins reported, noting that the number of cases from FY 2017 to FY 2021 rose by 58 percent while inflation-adjusted funding decreased by six percent. Cases comes from congressional referral rose dramatically as well, from an average of 10,000-11,000 referrals per year to 66,000 referrals last year.

Collins made a number of recommendations, including providing the agency with more funding; reduce barriers to e-filing; hire more customer service representatives and implement call-back technology to eliminate people waiting on hold; expand online functionality; and improve communications with taxpayers.

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