IRS officials long have warned of the risks. “The number of glitches has been increasing,” former commissioner John Koskinen said Thursday. “If you keep underfunding the agency, it’s a question of when, not whether, you have a significant systems failure.” Now Congress knows what a significant systems failure looks like. Lawmakers should not want to be responsible for another, potentially more serious one.
To say that IRS technology is obsolete is an understatement. “Approximately 64 percent of IRS hardware is aged, and 32 percent of supporting software is two or more releases behind the industry standard, with 15 percent more than four releases behind,” IRS Deputy Commissioner Jeffrey J. Tribiano testified to Congress in October. The agency still uses software dating to the 1960s, the era of giant, tape-based computers. Taxpayer files are kept in an archaic “master file” that operates on a computer language few people still use. Once state-of-the-art, the IRS has been building around this legacy arrangement for decades, resulting in a mostly functional but also complex and inefficient technical hodgepodge in which taxpayer case records are managed in more than 60 separate systems, many of which cannot communicate with one another. One result is daily inconvenience; for example, taxpayers who need help with multiple problems are transferred from place to place because certain files are inaccessible on some systems.
Following the tea party wave of 2010, the GOP Congress cut into the IRS, a government agency unfairly hated because of overblown accusations that it persecuted conservative groups and because of simple association with tax collecting. The agency lost some 18,000 employees between 2010 and 2017, even as it had to cope with implementing President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act and as the number of tax filings grew. The agency stopped answering anything but basic taxpayer questions. It answers the calls of only a little more than half of tax filers.
The IRS has been improving its customer service, and Congress recently allocated $320 million to help it implement Republicans’ new tax law. The House also passed on Wednesday a bipartisan reform package that would help improve the agency’s online systems, including by allowing it to take credit card payments. But these measures do not make up for years of funding shortfalls. Lawmakers can order the IRS to “do better,” Mr. Koskinen said, but “there aren’t enough people and there isn’t enough funding.”
Lawmakers should not feel as though their work is done. The House bill should be the starting point for improving the IRS.
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