The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The IRS is broken. It will take a big investment to fix it.

(Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News)
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The Internal Revenue Service is no longer functioning properly. The agency reported a backlog of about 8 million unprocessed returns at the start of the year; it turns out the actual figure is nearly 24 million, according to data obtained by The Post. About half of that backlog is paper returns the IRS doesn’t have enough staff to process. The other half is a mix of amended returns, cases flagged for more scrutiny and unopened correspondence.

There are real people behind every one of these returns. Donna Berry of Madisonville, Ky., filed an amended return on May 15. It still hasn’t been processed. She calls the IRS multiple times a month, only to be told there’s nothing the agency can do. Ms. Berry has custody of her 6-year-old granddaughter. She was supposed to receive the child tax credit payment starting in July, but she has yet to get a penny because her return is in limbo. Ms. Berry was counting on that money to buy WiFi for her granddaughter’s virtual schooling and speech therapy appointments that help with her learning difficulties. Instead, they have muddled through on Ms. Berry’s phone.

“It’s been a nightmare,” Ms. Berry said. “If I wait an hour on the phone and get to speak to someone, it’s like a great victory.”

Elizabeth and Will Rodger of Alexandria, Va., filed their tax return electronically around March 15. They are waiting for close to a $9,000 refund since they did not receive their stimulus payments. For months, the IRS website said their return was still processing. Then it said it wasn’t found. They have called repeatedly and contacted their congressman, but still, there is no refund and no word from the IRS on what went wrong.

“They’re running on COBOL and Band-Aids over there,” said Elizabeth Rodger, referring to the 60-year-old computing technology the IRS still uses.

The IRS was once a leader in innovation. Not anymore. The agency’s inability to conduct basic functions is as much a symbol of American decline as collapsing bridges. Congress recently passed a bipartisan infrastructure bill. Why hasn’t there been a similar rush to fix the IRS and devote the necessary resources to rebuild it?

Much of the blame falls on Republicans, who slashed the IRS budget by about 18 percent in the past decade. The result was a 20 percent decline in staffing, including the fewest auditors since 1953. At the same time, the IRS has been asked to do more and more. It had to quickly implement the 2017 GOP tax overhaul. Then it had to issue 160 million stimulus payments multiple times. Last year, Democrats gave the IRS another massive task: Issuing child tax credit payments every month from July to December.

IRS Commissioner Charles P. Rettig, a Trump administration appointee, has been under fire for being slow to respond to this crisis. He finally created “surge teams” to help with clerical tasks and scrapped a plan to close the Austin processing facility. It won’t be enough.

What the IRS really needs is a big investment to staff up and modernize its systems. Congress must treat this with the same degree of urgency as the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.