photo image of lettering on one side of the Internal Revenue Service in Washington D.C.

Where’s Your Payment? Trump’s Failed Stimulus Rollout, One More Thing To Remember In November

 

by Richard Cameron


 

We’ve noticed that a lot of people are confused about the whereabouts of their stimulus check. It’s fairly well known that the IRS has some portals on their main website, that are intended to be tools for citizens to both check on the status of the payments or to submit information that the agency might need to accurately direct the payment – for example, updating the bank account and routing numbers for the direct deposits or one’s new address.

The sign in for the app to check the status, looks like this:

screenshot of Internal Revenue Service portal, "Get My Payment"

But many people are using the “Get My Payment” tool and repeatedly seeing the following advisory:

screenshot from IRS "Get My Payment" portal, showing the advisory that "Payment Status Not Available"

The IRS does have a list of possible explanations as to why your payment (and mine) has not shown up in your checking or savings account. You should review that list in order to mentally check off issues that may or may not apply.  But there is one explanation that is perhaps, intentionally vague:

“If you recently filed your return or provided information through Non-Filers: Enter Your Payment Info on IRS.gov. Your payment status will be updated when processing is completed.”

The key to this, is the phrase, “when processing is completed.” The explanation has practical and political implications. What is it? 

The IRS is badly unprepared for this surge in activity because they have a shortage of employees – a shortage of employees and capacity on Donald Trump’s watch.

So much so, that virtually no tax returns are being processed – particularly any that were paper filed, but also filings that came in electronically. To add insult to injury, the “Get My Payment” site was so besieged that it crashed last week

As noted in Politico, “All of the agency’s processing and taxpayer assistance centers have been shuttered to shield its workforce from exposure to the virus.” 

That would explain why your tax return is not yielding a paper check. But it’s not the entire explanation. For example, some who did mail in their returns, were advised to go to the “Get My Payment” portal and submit a form to put their data in the stream in advance of their paper filing. That will expedite your payment in theory, but possibly not in practice. 

The root of the problem is two-fold. One part is that the IRS software still widely in use at the agency dates back to 1962 and the computer systems that run it are also archaic and outmoded, not to mention, maintenance intensive. 

black and white photo, circa late 1960s of an IRS employee operating a massive mainframe computer operating on COBOL programming language

John Koskinen, who served as IRS commissioner from 2013 to 2017, told The Washington Post, “The IRS systems are still hard-coded. It’s not just a keystroke to go into the code and make the change and hope you’ve made it correctly.”

It’s also been reported that the IRS uses COBOL programming code, which not only requires specialized programming skills, but requires constant updating. Computer World described COBOL as, “a programming dinosaur that was last hot in the 1980s.”

image of sample COBOL programming code as seen on an actual CRT screen

Also complicating the issue of this outmoded technology, is that COBOL is not compatible with or supportive of API’s – (application programming interfaces). The practical implication of that is that while more recent programming languages accommodate modifications and integrations, COBOL does not. 

Add all this together and you have what veterans would euphemize as a “Charlie Foxtrot”. Don’t ask me to de-code that

The second part of the mess is that the GOP kneecapped the IRS. For the entire run that Republicans controlled Congress, the IRS budget has been slashed. The most recent waves of these cuts took place when the GOP held a spending package hostage in 2013 /  2014, requiring President Obama agree to a cut of $600 million

Initially, Trump had asked for a cut of $239 million in his 2017 budget, but was no doubt advised that with the tax holiday he pushed through Congress for corporations and the uber wealthy, it would be a bit over the top, to further handicap the agency’s ability to use its auditing capabilities to recover revenue that might fall through the cracks.  The “tax reform” bill was already unseemly, the thinking went, perhaps we shouldn’t make it entirely radioactive.

But some will ask, “the IRS does have a sizable budget, shouldn’t they be able to modernize?”  It’s a legitimate question. The devil is in the details. Congress continues to increase the amount of revenue recovery tasks the agency is responsible for, without allowing the agency to ever get a solid footing on upgrading their systems. The IRS is always playing catch up.

That catch up game has caught the Trump administration with its pants down. The Seattle Times reports

Overall, the agency had 76,000 employees last June, down from 99,500 in 2010. Dozens of experts in the agency’s legacy computer systems have left or retired, current and former officials said. Starting in 2011, Republicans in Congress have repeatedly sought cuts to the IRS budget.

Another factor in the case of the slows in the processing of these stimulus payments is that the tool Americans are directed to use, is one that is managed by a non-government contractor,freefilefillableforms.com.

The problem doesn’t rest with them. For their part, transferring your information to the IRS electronically, is pretty reliable and I received a confirmation in less than 24 hours.

The log jam comes into play, when the IRS receives the data from this third party. When they do, the data cannot be transited directly into a payment engine. It must be bridged over to the aforementioned archaic IRS mainframe systems by hourly employees manually transferring your SSN, full name, birthdate, address, account and routing number.

Trump’s insistence that his name appear on the physical checks, will add weeks to the timeline. The Washington Post reports, “The team, working from home, is now racing to implement a programming change that two senior IRS officials said will probably lead to a delay in issuing the first batch of paper checks.”  

Adding Trump’s arrogant scribble to the check requires a modification in the coding and then a testing period. Chad Hooper, national president of the IRS Professional Managers Association, and a quality control manager, himself, noted that, “Any last-minute request like this will create a downstream snarl that will result in a delay.”

The net result of neglecting the long overdue need to renovate the information systems infrastructure at the IRS, is that the timing of the arrival of your stimulus payment, is as random as the lottery. And the stimulus payment snafu is something that he will deny responsibility for, but he won’t be able to escape accountability for.


   

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