Every year, Americans know that they must file their taxes on a deadline or face serious consequences. They have the right to expect that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) will hold up its end of the bargain by promptly and professionally processing returns and issuing refunds.
However, right now the IRS is lagging badly behind, with over 3 million pieces of unopened mail and one million unprocessed tax returns in their hands. This year has posed a hardship for millions of Americans, and delays and confusion in the agency that handles our money and taxes are only compounding that stress.
During my time as North Dakota Tax Commissioner, I learned firsthand the importance of quickly and efficiently processing tax returns. When tax payments sit in envelopes, their value depreciates and funding for critical public priorities is held up.
President Donald Trump came to government promising that he would bring competence by running agencies like businesses. Unfortunately for the American people, he's been running the IRS like one of his businesses. As a result, Americans are in the dark about their tax returns and still waiting on stimulus checks.
To be fair, the IRS has been underfunded, understaffed, and struggling to do its job for years. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin promised to run the IRS like a business and fix the inefficiencies.
At Mnuchin's confirmation hearing, he acknowledged the agency's lack of resources and enforcement of the tax laws. He promised to "adequately staff and modernize the IRS" and to "work with the Commissioner and Congress to improve the performance of the IRS, including advocating for resources." Mnuchin didn't keep this promise.
Instead, our already struggling system was delivered a critical blow by Covid-19. As the United States dealt with the ramifications of a global pandemic, the IRS floundered under the weight of their responsibilities.
In addition to the unusual tax season, with multiple pushed deadlines, the agency was also 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 administration is currently on full display.
Like other Trump administration actions, the mismanagement of the IRS has a disproportionate impact on working Americans. Study after study shows that the IRS audits poor Americans at a higher rate than rich Americans – a state of affairs not likely 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.
On top of that, lack of funding and resources at the IRS has caused delays in desperately needed Covid-19 stimulus aid. This is especially true for low-income families struggling to make ends meet. The IRS failed to provide complete stimulus payments to families who are not required to file a federal tax return. The people who are hurt most by these preventable failures are the ones who can afford it the least.
Americans deserve an IRS that works. People across the country rely on tax returns and economic aid and our country relies on the income provided by tax returns.
As Congress considers a desperately needed round of economic relief, it should include appropriations to make good on Secretary Mnuchin's promise of a better resourced, better performing IRS.
Like refunds and stimulus checks for millions of Americans, it would be better to receive it late than never.
Heidi Heitkamp served as the first female senator elected in North Dakota from 2013-2019. She is co-founder of the One Country Project and is a CNBC contributor.