TaxWatch: IRS ‘stands ready’ to send out third round of stimulus checks and process tax returns at the same time, commissioner says

United States

Another tax season is approaching where the Internal Revenue Service will have to process more than 150 million income tax returns.

The tax collection agency also faces the prospect of distributing a third round of stimulus checks, as President Joe Biden comes into office and begins his push for a $ 1.9 trillion rescue plan that includes $ 1,400 direct checks.

The IRS can do both at the same time if need be, its commissioner said Thursday.

“The IRS stands ready to serve and assist the American people,” Charles Rettig said in a talk with Howard Gleckman, a senior fellow at the Tax Policy Center.

Since the pandemic’s start, the IRS has already gone through one tax filing season and distributed two rounds of direct payments.

Between refunds from 2019 income tax returns and the two rounds of direct checks, the agency has pushed out almost $ 735 billion to taxpayers, according to Rettig. The IRS released 147 million payments totaling $ 142 billion within two days of the pandemic relief package that authorized a second round of checks in December, Rettig said.   

The IRS will begin accepting 2020 income tax returns on Feb. 12. It’s advised people to file their returns electronically and include direct deposit information for the quickest turnaround times on receiving a refund.

Many people who mailed in their tax returns last year may have learned that lesson all too well.

When the IRS temporarily closed down its offices last spring amid the pandemic, it amassed a mountain of unopened mail.

By early July, the agency had 23.4 million pieces of unopened mail, including tax returns waiting to be processed, according to Rettig.

The agency has chipped away at the unopened correspondence and “we actually are current, believe it or not,” Rettig said. That still doesn’t mean, however, that the job on that paperwork is complete. “We have millions of tax returns still in process, but they all are in process, what we’ve received,” Rettig said.  

Back in December,  Rettig said the IRS still had three million pieces of unopened mail and one million unprocessed returns. Processing times may vary, depending on which IRS office location has the return, the agency has said.

The IRS is getting back to square one, but that’s not to say it’s flush with staff and cash.

“The IRS could use significant resources across the board in services, enforcement, operation support,” Rettig said, noting that around 40% of the agency’s staff will become eligible for retirement in the next two years.

In July, members of the House of Representatives put aside $ 12.1 billion for the agency, up from $ 11.5 billion a year earlier. The Senate Appropriations Committee earmarked $ 11.5 billion for the Fiscal Year 2021 budget and the chambers will have to resolve the difference.

Since Fiscal Year 2010, federal lawmakers have cut the IRS budget by 20% when adjusting for inflation, according to a report earlier this month from National Taxpayer Advocate Erin Collins. The employee head count at the agency has fallen by roughly that same amount, said Collins, a consumer watchdog within the IRS.

“When funds are tight, organizations need to get creative and find ways to do with less. But there are limits to what can be done with less — particularly with 20 percent less,” she wrote.