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IRS Besieged With Virus Payment Questions, Drawing Lawmaker Ire

Aug. 13, 2020, 7:52 PM

The IRS is overhauling a system it created to help congressional offices answer constituent questions about $1,200 virus relief checks the agency started distributing this spring.

The changes take effect as another round of payments could come this fall, depending on whether negotiations resume between Democrats and the White House. The agency is planning to assign up to 5% of its customer service representative resources to respond to questions sent to the “congressional mailbox,” IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig said in an letter sent to congressional offices earlier this month.

“Because many of the inquiries include highly complex and account-specific concerns, we need to contact the individual directly to obtain the information, which can take additional time,” Rettig said in the letter.

Rettig said that the agency receives more than 1,000 emails a day but closes inquiries at the rate of 1,100 to 2,000 a week. That shows that the backlog could get worse before it gets better, said former IRS Commissioner Mark Everson.

Some of the problems with non-filers and others seeing issues with their economic impact payments were inevitable, given how fast the agency had to work to get payments in the hands of the millions of people who have successfully received them, Everson, who is now vice chairman of alliantgroup LP, said.

“The agency is like a big yellow school bus. It provides reliable transportation, but it doesn’t go from zero to 60 very quickly, and it doesn’t go around curves very well,” Everson said.

The economic impact payments were part of the CARES Act (Public Law 116-136), a relief law enacted in March. The IRS has delivered more than 160 million of the payments, totaling about $270 billion. But some people are still waiting on payments, and some payments were mistakenly sent to deceased individuals, prompting the IRS to request that families return the money.

Another round of direct payments was included in both the House (H.R. 6800) and Senate’s starting-bid packages. But negotiations have broken down in recent weeks, and may not resume until after August recess.

Strong Words


One way out for the IRS may be to bring in outside contractors, just like states did to deal with mounting unemployment claims , said Jeff Trinca, vice president of Van Scoyoc Associates in Washington.

Rettig’s letter “is endemic of a larger problem for both Congress and the IRS: when you give the IRS a new job to do—even when it is quote-unquote ‘online,’ it always creates a downstream customer service need,” Trinca said.

Some individuals with questions about their relief payments will soon be able to ask the Taxpayer Advocate Service.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) and Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) have criticized the agency’s handling of those questions, saying a portal on the IRS website to check payment status is ineffective. The congressional mailbox and the agency’s payment phone line are “inadequate to meet demand,” they said.

At a minimum, the IRS should expand telephone and mailbox assistance by adding at least 1,000 additional employees, the letter said.

Neal’s office said it is awaiting a reply from the IRS on the issues. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley’s (R-Iowa) office declined to comment. House Ways and Means ranking member Kevin Brady’s (R-Texas) and Rep. Mike Thompson’s (D-Calif.) offices didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Former IRS Commissioner John Koskinen noted the agency’s years-long budget challenges and a loss of thousands of employees since 2010.

“A larger workforce would not have avoided the problems described in the letter, but clearly would have been able to respond to them even faster than the IRS did,” he said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Kaustuv Basu in Washington at kbasu@bloombergtax.com; Allyson Versprille in Washington at aversprille@bloombergtax.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Patrick Ambrosio at pambrosio@bloombergtax.com; Colleen Murphy at cmurphy@bloombergtax.com

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