AICPA concerned about shutdown impact on taxpayers and practitioners

The American Institute of CPAs voiced concerns about the impact of the partial government shutdown on both taxpayers and tax practitioners in a letter to officials at the Internal Revenue Service and the Treasury Department, a day before President Trump announced a deal to reopen the affected government agencies for three weeks.

In a letter Thursday to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig, the AICPA pointed to the inaccessibility of online systems and accounts at the IRS, the lack of assistance, automated collection notices that couldn’t be responded to, and the need for further guidance on the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, among other problems.

"The need for unhindered availability of a fair and administrable tax system is rising as we approach the opening of tax filing season,” AICPA Tax Executive Committee chair Annette Nellen wrote in her letter Thursday. She acknowledged the “inherent and systemic limitations both Treasury and the IRS face during the shutdown,” but called for additional steps to “reduce the harmful effect on the public.”

AICPA Tax Executive Committee chair Annette Nellen

On Friday afternoon, Trump and Democratic leaders in Congress agreed to a tentative deal on the 35th day of the shutdown allowing government agencies like the IRS to reopen for three weeks while negotiations continue over the president’s demand for a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border.

A revised contingency plan earlier this month called for more than 46,000 of the approximately 70,000 furloughed IRS employees to return to work to process tax refunds and get ready for tax season, but the majority of them have been unpaid since the shutdown began on December 22. Friday marked the second time they have missed out on their biweekly paychecks. Trump promised the back pay would go out to workers "very quickly."

The National Treasury Employees Union insisted after the president’s announcement that federal employees should receive all of their back pay immediately upon the reopening of the federal government. “Get the checks out, now," said National Treasury Employees Union President Tony Reardon in a statement Friday. "Federal employees haven’t been paid in more than a month and mortgage and rent are due next week. They shouldn’t have to wait a minute longer.”

The NTEU pointed out that the Government Employee Fair Treatment Act, which was signed into law on Jan. 16, said federal employees affected by the shutdown would receive their back pay at the “earliest date possible” after the government reopens, regardless of the next regular scheduled pay date.

“Some 800,000 middle-class working families around the country are strapped for cash and their suffering should prompt agency payroll providers to move swiftly in cutting the back-pay checks,” Reardon said.

At least 14,000 of the recalled IRS employees didn’t come to work at the agency this week, Politico and the Washington Post reported Friday. Many of them took advantage of a “hardship exemption” for Treasury employees who lack the means to get to work (see IRS employees taking hardship exemptions during shutdown).

The shutdown was affecting not only 800,000 federal employees, but the impact was spreading across the country Friday, with lines growing at major airports as increasing numbers of unpaid air traffic controllers and Transportation Security Administration employees didn’t come to work. The federal courts were also scheduled to run out of funds by the end of the month. The U.S. Tax Court actually shut down operations on Dec. 28, 2018, only a few days after the shutdown began. On Friday, ahead of the president’s announcement of a tentative deal with Democrats, the Tax Court’s website announced the court would remain closed until further notice.

The AICPA said its members have been feeling the impact of the shutdown. “According to our members, the many IRS services and processes that are not functioning, or are not functioning at their normal levels, are creating more problematic issues,” said Nellen.

The most common challenges identified by AICPA members included automated notices, with the IRS continuing to mail automated IRS collection notices, automated warnings of asset seizures and Notices of Intent to Levy, as well as automatically transferring cases to collections, when there is no staff to respond to taxpayers’ attempted replies to resolve the issue or prevent the IRS threatened action from occurring.

There were also problems with IRS audits and appeals. The AICPA noted that the IRS has suspended all audit, examination, and appeals activity, unless the statute of limitations will expire. However, that suspension meant that tax practitioners were unable to communicate with IRS employees to resolve their clients’ tax issues on a timely basis. Nellen pointed out that 90-day letters from the IRS would continue to expire amid uncertainty about how the IRS would treat the expirations of response deadlines and statute of limitations during the shutdown.

Some taxpayers and tax practitioners have been experiencing difficulty accessing and using online accounts. Form 2848, Power of Attorney and Declaration of Representative, isn’t being processed even though it’s required for practitioners to act on behalf of taxpayers.

Live telephone customer service assistance for taxpayers and tax practitioners has been limited as well, while IRS walk-in taxpayer assistance centers have been closed since the shutdown.

Implementation of new tax forms and guidance for the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act have also slowed down, even though the IRS allowed employees to continue issuing guidance and regulations on the tax code overhaul during the shutdown. But the AICPA argued that tax practitioners and taxpayers need more guidance from the IRS for their 2018 tax returns, which will be the first year to reflect the extensive tax changes in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. According to the filing season contingency plan, the AICPA noted, there are only 346 excepted staff in the IRS Chief Counsel’s office who are authorized to work during a shutdown, including 56 who have qualified for the exception because their activities concern the TCJA. With the limited number of staff working on TCJA implementation, the AICPA observed that many tax forms and instructions are still in the “draft” stage and pending approval or remain in a non-submittable format, which will probably result in problems with the filing season readiness of commercial tax prep software.

On behalf of the AICPA, Nellen made a number of suggestions. She recommended the IRS provide automatic extension of notices and collections until 90 days from the shutdown end date; stop assessing penalties and interest and cease sending automated notices; maintain all online systems and accounts operating effectively; provide full assistance to taxpayers and tax practitioners; and retain more IRS Chief Counsel attorneys for TCJA guidance.

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