President Donald Trump wants to send cash payments to households in less than two weeks, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Wednesday, but former IRS officials warn that deadline could be hard to meet.
The payments are one of the central provisions of the $2 trillion stimulus package awaiting a Senate vote.
Schumer said in a CNN interview that Trump wanted the money to start going out April 6 to get checks or direct deposit payments into people’s hands as soon as possible. A family of four could receive as much as $3,400, according to the Senate bill.
“Big help, quick help is on the way,” Schumer said.
Politicians and economists think that’s a great idea. With businesses already laying off workers and economic activity grinding to a halt, many people are wondering how they are going to pay bills due in April. But former IRS officials warn it may not be possible for the agency to act so quickly.
“I’m confident they’re going to do better than anybody would expect with all of the limitations they face, but it won’t be easy,” former IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said.
The IRS declined to comment on how fast the agency could issue the payments. The Treasury Department did not respond to a request to comment. The White House didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the April 6 deadline.
Processing these stimulus payments will likely take much longer than two weeks because there isn’t a centralized, up-to-date list of every household, the number of children, income and address or direct deposit bank information, the former officials said. When the IRS sent checks to large swaths of households most recently — in 2008 and 2009 — it took more than two months to get the money in the mail.
It will be easy for the IRS to send money to some taxpayers, such as Social Security recipients and those who get benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs, because the federal government already sends funds to those individuals regularly.
“The IRS may be able to handle payments that quickly for a smaller number of payments, but for that many millions it will require special handling,” said Mark Everson, IRS commissioner from 2003 to 2007.
The IRS should be able to send about half of the payments via direct deposit, according to a Senate Finance Committee aide who helped draft the bill. Those payments directly to bank accounts go out within a matter of weeks after the law is signed, but paper checks could take more than a month, the aide said. The government is also considering ways — such as pre-loaded debit cards — to get payments to people without bank accounts.
As part of the Senate’s massive stimulus package announced early Wednesday, the government will send payments of $1,200 to many adults and $500 to children. The payments are subject to an income cap that starts to phase out at $75,000 for an individual or $150,000 for a married couple.
The payments will be based on tax returns filed in 2020, but for people who have yet to submit their tax returns, they’ll be based on information filed in previous years. Even more taxpayers could put off filing their taxes this year, since Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin pushed back the filing and payment deadline to July 15 to help people make ends meet during the economic crisis.
The IRS has taxpayers’ addresses and bank accounts for those who received a refund via direct deposit, but it might not be current or accurate, particularly for those who haven’t yet filed yet this year.
The birth of children, divorces and marriages could also affect how big the check should be, meaning that many people could receive more or less than they’re supposed to get. The agency may also have gaps in the data from individuals who aren’t required to file tax returns because they don’t make enough money.
These are all obstacles that could slow the IRS down as it tries to send the payments, said Mark Mazur, a former IRS and Treasury Department official.
“You have to accept that there is going to be a bunch of errors,” said Mazur, now the director of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. “To do this instantaneously is an aspirational goal.”
Taxpayers who receive incorrect amounts or don’t get a check at all can resolve those differences on their tax return next spring, but that means they won’t have access to the money immediately.
“The bottom line is you’ve got to make sure the best isn’t the enemy of the good,” Koskinen said. “And the fact that you won’t necessarily reach 100% of everybody qualified doesn’t mean you shouldn’t send it to the 80 percent or 90 percent you can reach out to and find.”
The IRS is also operating at less than full capacity at one of its busiest times of the year. The agency has been forced to close many offices or reduce operations in facilities across the country, including those performing “mission-critical” tasks.
Commissioner Charles Rettig said in an email to employees last week that even if a facility isn’t closed, its workforce will be cut in half to comply with social distancing orders.
Eddie Walker, an IRS employee and president of the National Treasury Employees Union Chapter 247 in Austin, said employees have been told they’ll be needed to process checks, but they haven’t been briefed on who will be responsible for that work or how it’s going to be done.
Walker said he is concerned about the safety of IRS workers and is worried agency leadership may force people to come back prematurely to process the checks.
The IRS’s technology department will be particularly strained because it will need to go back through the filing database to find the information needed to issue checks or make wire transfers, Koskinen said.
Despite these reductions the agency says that its core functions and duties won’t be jeopardized.
The IRS is the best-situated federal agency to process these payments, even if it doesn’t have perfect data, Alan Viard, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute, said. It has more taxpayer information than any other part of the government, he said.
“The main argument is that you want to get the money out as quickly as possible,” Viard said. “The whole purpose is not to sort out who does and who doesn’t need it. It’s to get it out fast.”