Op-ed: IRS Tax Refund Arrears Enhance Individuals' Plight Throughout Covid-19 Pandemic

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Americans know every year that they have to file their taxes on time or face serious consequences. You have the right to expect the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to hold up the end of the business by processing returns promptly and professionally and issuing refunds.

Right now, however, the IRS is well behind with over 3 million unopened mail pieces and a million unprocessed tax returns on their hands. This year has got millions of Americans in trouble, and delays and confusion in the agency handling our money and taxes only add to that stress.

During my time as the North Dakota Tax Commissioner, I learned firsthand the importance of handling tax returns quickly and efficiently. When tax payments are in envelopes, their value diminishes and the funding of critical public priorities is halted.

President Donald Trump came to government and pledged to bring expertise to the table by running agencies and companies. Unfortunately for the American people, he runs the IRS like one of his businesses. As a result, Americans are in the dark about their tax returns and are still waiting for stimulus checks.

To be fair, the IRS has been underfunded, understaffed and eager to get the job done for years. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin pledged to run the IRS like a business and fix the inefficiencies.

At the Mnuchin hearing, he acknowledged the agency's lack of resources and enforcement of tax laws. He pledged to "adequately man and modernize the IRS" and "to work with the Commissioner and Congress to improve the performance of the IRS, including advocating resources". Mnuchin did not keep this promise.

Combined with delays and attacks on the U.S. Postal Service, the lack of leadership within the IRS and Trump administrations is currently fully visible.

Instead, our already struggling system was hit hard by Covid-19. As the United States dealt with the aftermath of a global pandemic, the IRS wavered under the weight of its responsibilities.

In addition to the unusual tax season with several postponed deadlines, the agency has also been tasked with distributing Covid-19 stimulus aid to the American people. Combined with delays and attacks on the U.S. Postal Service, the lack of leadership within the IRS and Trump administrations is currently fully visible.

As with other actions by the Trump administration, the mismanagement of the IRS disproportionately affects working Americans. Study after study shows that the IRS audits poor Americans more often than rich Americans – a condition that is unlikely to change without additional resources to support high-level IRS investigations.

People who rely on money from their tax returns to provide housing, food and health care for their families have been left in the lurch. The failure to get refunds into the hands of working families during a global pandemic that has cost millions of Americans their jobs is inexcusable.

Additionally, the lack of funding and resources with the IRS has delayed the much-needed Covid-19 economic aid. This is especially true for low-income families who are struggling to make ends meet. The IRS failed to make full stimulus payments to families who are not required to file federal tax returns. The people who are most affected by these preventable mistakes can least afford them.

Americans deserve an IRS that works. People across the country rely on tax returns and economic aid, and our country relies on the income from tax returns.

As Congress contemplates a much-needed round of economic relief, it should include funds to fulfill Secretary Mnuchin's promise to create a better-resourced, better-performing IRS.

Like refunds and stimulus checks for millions of Americans, it would be better to get them late than never.

Heidi Heitkamp was the first female senator to be elected in North Dakota from 2013 to 2019. She is a co-founder of the One Country Project and a CNBC contributor.

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