IRS shutdown plan fails to quell worries

IRS shutdown plan fails to quell worries
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The IRS’s new contingency plan to deal with the shutdown has failed to quell concerns from Democratic lawmakers and tax professionals about the upcoming tax-filing season.

The Treasury Department’s updated shutdown plan for the IRS released Tuesday provides for 46,000 employees, or 57.4 percent of the agency’s workforce, to be working during the tax-filing season. It also confirms that the IRS will issue refunds during the shutdown.

But the plan didn’t answer all of the questions that lawmakers and tax experts have, and there are lingering doubts about how effective the IRS will be at doing its job while its employees are working without pay due to the funding lapse.

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“I have concern about the IRS carrying out its mission. I want them to do that, and they can’t do it under a shutdown condition at the level that it needs to be done,” said Sen. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinOnly four Dem senators have endorsed 2020 candidates Senate Dem: Trump 'using immigrants as pawns' Bottom Line MORE (D-Md.), a member of the Senate Finance Committee.

The IRS is one of the agencies that policymakers are most closely watching during the shutdown as millions of people across the country will be interacting with the agency over the next few months.

The tax-filing season is set to start in just under two weeks on Jan. 28 and would have been a notable filing season even without a shutdown. This year will be the first time that taxpayers will file returns that take into account many of the changes made by President TrumpDonald John TrumpImpeachment? Not so fast without missing element of criminal intent Feds say marijuana ties could prevent immigrants from getting US citizenship Trump approval drops to 2019 low after Mueller report's release: poll MORE’s tax law.

But the shutdown is making the IRS’s work even more challenging.

The Treasury Department’s initial shutdown contingency plan for the IRS was for the non-filing-season period. Under that plan, only 12.5 percent of the IRS’s workforce has been working. Stakeholders had been anxious to see an updated version of the shutdown plan for the filing season, to learn more about what functions the IRS would be performing once people started sending in their tax returns.

The filing season plan answers some of stakeholders’ questions, such as how many more IRS employees would be working and what areas of the IRS would be bringing back employees. Still, a number of questions and concerns remain.

One concern is whether the IRS will be able to process refunds at the same speed they usually do during the filing season.

Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenOn The Money: Inside the Mueller report | Cain undeterred in push for Fed seat | Analysis finds modest boost to economy from new NAFTA | White House says deal will give auto sector B boost Government report says new NAFTA would have minimal impact on economy Hillicon Valley: Washington preps for Mueller report | Barr to hold Thursday presser | Lawmakers dive into AI ethics | FCC chair moves to block China Mobile | Dem bill targets 'digital divide' | Microsoft denies request for facial recognition tech MORE (Ore.), the top Democrat on the Finance Committee, expressed frustration on Twitter on Tuesday that the IRS released information about the number of agency employees who are being called back to work before providing information about whether there would be a delay in issuing refunds.

“This is unacceptable, and an insult to every American taxpayer and furloughed worker,” Wyden tweeted.

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Rep. Brian HigginsBrian HigginsDemocratic proposals to overhaul health care: A 2020 primer Democratic senators unveil 'Medicare X' bill to expand coverage US labor unions say NAFTA replacement doesn't go far enough for workers MORE (D-N.Y.), a member of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, said he worried that if people who expect to get their refunds in a couple of weeks don’t receive them, it could hurt the economy.

“That delay, that’s going to affect people’s economic behavior, individually and collectively,” he said.

Higgins also expressed frustration that the IRS canceled a meeting with Ways and Means Committee members that had been planned for Wednesday.

Thomas Cooke, a professor at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business, said taxpayers who file their taxes at the beginning of the filing season and could be hardest hit by a delay in refunds tend to fall at the lower end of the income spectrum.

Key Republicans, though, are expressing confidence in the IRS’s ability to issue refunds during the shutdown.

Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinOn The Money: House Dem says marijuana banking bill will get vote in spring | Buttigieg joins striking Stop & Shop workers | US home construction slips in March | Uber gets B investment for self-driving cars Former Sears holding company sues ex-CEO, Mnuchin and others over 'asset stripping' On The Money: Inside the Mueller report | Cain undeterred in push for Fed seat | Analysis finds modest boost to economy from new NAFTA | White House says deal will give auto sector B boost MORE told a Bloomberg reporter on Tuesday that he expects refunds to be issued on time. And Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyOn The Money: Inside the Mueller report | Cain undeterred in push for Fed seat | Analysis finds modest boost to economy from new NAFTA | White House says deal will give auto sector B boost The 7 most interesting nuggets from the Mueller report Government report says new NAFTA would have minimal impact on economy MORE (R-Iowa) said that with about half of the IRS’s workforce returning to the job, “I’m assured that that’s enough to get the refunds done.”

Another top concern from Democratic lawmakers and tax professionals is the fact that IRS employees working during the filing season will be doing so without pay until the shutdown ends. The shutdown is now in its fourth week with no end in sight as President Trump and congressional Democrats remain at an impasse over funding for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Our federal workers are human, and when you work without pay, you’re distracted,” Cardin said. “There’s no question about that.”

The IRS is one of a number of agencies where some federal employees have been working without a paycheck. While President Trump on Wednesday signed a bill that would provide back pay to federal workers once the shutdown ends, the employees don’t get the money until the federal agencies are funded again.

Many Democrats have been highlighting the fact that federal employees have been furloughed or working without pay as they push for Trump to sign legislation to reopen the government.

“For people to be working for this period of time and not getting money to help pay their bills, you got to feel for those folks,” said Sen. Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperOnly four Dem senators have endorsed 2020 candidates Koch network launches ad campaign opposing Trump's proposed gas tax Big Dem names show little interest in Senate MORE (D-Del.), a Finance Committee member.

Tax professionals also expressed concerns that IRS employees may not have all the training they need for the filing season, given that many of the employees who will be working then haven’t been working for the past few weeks. And they raised concerns about the fact that the filing-season shutdown plan doesn’t staff up the Taxpayer Advocate Service, which helps people resolve problems with the IRS, at close to full strength.

“You’re going to have some questions and problems that naturally occur during the filing season that may not have a place to go,” said Michael Dolan, national director of IRS policies and dispute resolution in the Washington national tax practice of KPMG.

Tax experts also said that when many IRS employees return after the shutdown, they will be bombarded with work that has piled up. They said the shutdown will place stress on areas of the IRS outside of filing-season work — such as audits, which are not being conducted during the shutdown.

“The real impact will be on all the other things the Service does,” said Mark Everson, a former IRS commissioner who now serves as vice chairman of alliantgroup, a tax service provider.