Tom Clyde: Filing an extension on the IRS’ one job
Wednesday was tax day. We got a couple of extra days because the 15th landed on a Sunday; Monday was a holiday in Washington, DC. So taxes were due on Tuesday. Except there was a little problem. The IRS computer system crashed and wouldn’t accept payments or returns. So tax day became Wednesday. The IRS being unable to receive tax payments is just a perfect metaphor for where the country stands at the moment.
Every year, on the same day, IRS is set up to receive our tax returns. They have done this before. It should not be a surprise. On the one day the system absolutely, positively had to work, it didn’t. It seems like there could be a way to have us file in batches, like car registration. Tax filings are a lot more complicated, and involve third parties closing out their books, issuing the W2s and other forms so it all happens at once.
The computers choked. The most favorable view is that it was some internal problem, a bad hard drive or a loose cable. The system is unique to the IRS, so there isn’t an 800 number for tech support. But it wouldn’t be surprising if the system got hacked. Maybe Putin is trying to help expedite tax reform. We’ll never know. They were back online Wednesday.
Operating our overly complicated and corrupt tax system is difficult. It’s also kind of important. It needs to operate as smoothly as it can, and it’s reasonable to expect that when we file our returns, they will get processed promptly. If a refund is due, we expect that to get paid quickly. That’s their only job, and they botched it.
The entire federal government seems to be operating at about that same level. Congress has one constitutionally mandated job. They are supposed to adopt a budget. They haven’t really done a budget in years. It’s always a series of short term patches, threatened shutdowns, and then, finally, halfway through the fiscal year, they proudly adopt a formal budget. It comes too late to materially affect most programs that have been operating under temporary funding for half the year. And the full-year budget (adopted when the year is half over) tends to just maintain whatever was happening last year.
There are always a few symbolic changes — increases on military hardware, border walls and the like. But the national conversation about broad priorities and spending that is supposed to take place in Congress never happens. We just blunder along, spending more than we take in and hope we will be gone before it becomes a problem.
The good news is that the tax reform bill Congress crammed through this year will fix everything. Yep, next year, we will be filing our taxes on that slightly oversized post card that President Trump and Congressman Ryan held up when they were promoting the new tax bill. They promised. They will be able to get rid of that huge, antiquated computer system at the IRS and operate the entire tax collection system with a smartphone. Most deductions either go away, or get swallowed up by an increased “standard deduction.” I don’t think most people know whether they will be paying more or less. People with big families will lose the personal exemption on each child, and may pay more. People with modest incomes and no mortgage interest will likely pay less.
And the top 5 percent of incomes will pay a lot less. The whole plan is that they are supposed to be so happy with their reduced tax burden that they will share it with the rest of us. I distinctly recall being promised a $4,000 a year raise, which has not shown up yet.
Anyway, I got my taxes filed and have no illusions that it will be cheaper or easier next year. The computer system at the IRS probably won’t be any better equipped to handle it, and since the agency’s funding keeps getting reduced, there’s probably nobody there to get the new tax law changes entered into the computer system that was designed around the old tax law.
The Feds aren’t unique in their failure to deliver on basic stuff. There are several street lights on my drive home that haven’t functioned in years. At one intersection, there are two lights. It’s unusual to see either working, and I don’t recall ever seeing them both on. There’s a street light in Woodland that turns off whenever a car approaches it. The headlights shine on the sensor and the light turns off just in time for cars to enter the intersection. It shines brightly when nobody is there. That’s gone on for 40 years. If it’s important enough to traffic safety to have installed street lights, how come it isn’t important to keep them working?
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.
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