By ALAN RAPPEPORT
WASHINGTON – Millions of taxpayers who waited until Tuesday to file their 2017 tax returns and make payments through the Internal Revenue Service’s website were thwarted by a systemwide computer failure that advised last-minute filers to “come back on Dec. 31, 9999.”
The website malfunction, which began in the early hours of Tuesday morning and was not resolved until early evening, crippled a crucial part of the agency’s website that allows taxpayers to file returns electronically and make their tax payments directly through their bank accounts. The technology failure essentially brought the nation’s tax machinery to a halt on a day when millions of Americans were expected to file their tax returns, undermining the Trump administration’s plan to use Tax Day to promote its recent $1.5 trillion tax overhaul.
The IRS said in a statement that taxpayers would be given an additional day to file their returns.
On Tuesday, taxpayers could still file the old-fashioned way: By sending their returns and payments through the mail. But for most of the day, those seeking to make a payment online ahead of the midnight deadline were greeted with the message: “This service is currently unavailable.” The website said it was undergoing a “planned outage” beginning on Tax Day that would last until Dec. 31, 9999 but said tax payments were still due on April 17, despite the system’s inability to process them.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, speaking to reporters at an event in New Hampshire where he was lauding the new tax law, called the malfunction a “high-volume technical issue” and said taxpayers would be able to get an extension, according to The Associated Press.
It was unclear what caused the problem, which lasted from the early morning hours until a little after 5 p.m. Eastern time. David Kautter, the acting IRS commissioner, who happened to be testifying before Congress on an unrelated issue during the failure, told lawmakers that “a number of IRS systems were unavailable” and that the agency was working to fix the problem. He later apologized for the situation.
The IRS said that the problem was most likely related to a hardware issue and was not the result of a cyberattack. Congressional aides who were monitoring the situation on Tuesday said that they expected the IRS to have to reboot its entire computer system.
Lawmakers and former government officials blamed an antiquated computer system that has deteriorated as a result of budget cuts for the tech malfunction. Since 2010, the agency’s total budget has fallen from about $14 billion to $11.5 billion, and its staff has shrunk by 20,000, to nearly 76,000. The tax code has only grown more complex during that period and the population of the United States has increased, along with the number of people who file electronically.
A top IRS official warned Congress in October that a “catastrophic” system failure was just a matter of time.
“The IRS needs to upgrade its IT infrastructure, not only to help ensure reliable and modern taxpayer services, but also to mitigate risks to the system,” Jeffrey Tribiano, the IRS deputy commissioner for operations support, told the House Ways and Means oversight subcommittee. “We are concerned that the potential for a catastrophic system failure is increasing as our infrastructure continues to age.”
At the congressional hearing, Kautter lamented the fact that much of the IRS’ computing hardware is obsolete and that a significant portion of its software needs updating. He said that the agency faced more than 2 million attempted cyberattacks per day and that it desperately needed more resources to upgrade its systems and to bolster its defenses.
John Koskinen, the former IRS commissioner who left the agency last year, said that the agency’s computer system had deteriorated after years of neglect and that it likely crashed as a result of increased strain ahead of the filing deadline. Last year, 5 million taxpayers filed on Tax Day.
“I kept telling Congress, if funding continues to be constrained, it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when the system fails,” said Koskinen, who filed his taxes over the weekend. “You really are rolling the dice when you operate that way.”
The IRS initially urged taxpayers to try to complete their filings ahead of the deadline, despite the malfunction, prompting some confusion about how to go about doing so.
Among those who did not have to worry about filing late was President Donald Trump, who requested a six-month extension to file his returns because of their complexity, according to the White House. The IRS said it was expecting about 15 million people to request six-month extensions.
The crash was reminiscent of the problems that plagued the Affordable Care Act’s online health insurance exchange under President Barack Obama. It came on a day when Trump and his top advisers were trumpeting the tax cut passed by Congress late last year.
“President Trump was able to fix a broken tax system,” Mnuchin said during the New Hampshire event on Tuesday afternoon.
The malfunction comes as Republican lawmakers have been mulling legislation to restructure the IRS, which will face additional strain as it tries to issue new guidance and regulations to clarify lingering questions about the new tax law.
The issue of overhauling the IRS has been a challenging one for Republicans, who have long criticized the agency for unfairly targeting conservatives. Some lawmakers, such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, have vowed to “abolish” the agency.
In recent months, though, Republicans have reversed course. Leaders of the Ways and Means Committee have introduced a bill to “modernize” the agency, moving it away from outdated technologies and refocusing its mission on customer service.
“Our goal is to redesign, refocus, and rein in the IRS,” Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said on Tuesday. “Redesign the IRS by insisting they bring back to Congress a comprehensive restructuring of the organization to focus on customer service.”
Democrats seized on the computer failure on Tuesday as evidence that Republicans, who pushed the tax overhaul through Congress and have starved the agency of funding over the years, had been negligent.
“It’s clear from today’s events that the IRS needs adequate funding to protect and operate its IT systems,” said Rep. Richard E. Neal of Massachusetts, the top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee. “What you’re seeing today is not just the responsibility of the IRS, but of the years of Republican Congress neglect too.”