Treasury department’s workload surges amid critical staffing shortage

(WASHINGTON) — As the Treasury Department confronts the worst financial crisis since the 2008 economic downturn, the agency is also in the throes of a staffing shortage, including key leadership positions, as it races to issue millions of checks to Americans from the coronavirus relief package.

The agency has been tasked with overseeing the disbursement of $2.2 trillion in loans to small business owners and stimulus checks to taxpayers from the CARES Act. That is being done as several of the key agency departments requiring a presidential appointment and Senate confirmation are without a permanent leader.

The senior department vacancies include two undersecretary positions, and four assistant secretary roles, all of which are being led by treasury department officials in an acting capacity.

The critical domestic finance division, which would normally oversee the majority of the coronavirus stimulus relief efforts and the bureau of fiscal service responsible for the printing of the stimulus paper checks that will now bear the president’s name, is being run by Deputy Secretary Justin Muzinich, also in an acting capacity.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s former chief of staff, Eli Miller, departed the agency for a private-sector job more than a year ago. A question submitted to the Treasury Department Wednesday on whether Mnuchin has an acting official as chief of staff went unanswered.

“The treasury department has a talented and dedicated staff working around the clock on the economic response to the COVID-19 outbreak,” said a Treasury Department spokesman. “The secretary is ensuring that the department’s vast resources are being drawn upon to execute the largest economic relief package in history to help American workers, families, and businesses.”

Mnuchin, who now also works without a legislative director, directly negotiated the CARES Act with Congress and the White House. Mnuchin continues to advise them on the legislative matters.

Nominees for senior treasury department roles would need to make it through a potentially grueling Senate Finance Committee confirmation process and answer to committee Democrats who’ve wrestled with Mnuchin to obtain access to President Donald Trump’s tax returns.

The department’s assistant secretary of legislative affairs, Brian McGuire, left amid ongoing negotiations on the CARES Act, though he had previously indicated plans to leave the department earlier in the year.

While some 80 million Americans have now received their stimulus checks via direct deposit, millions more expect to see payments hit their bank accounts over the coming weeks. Paper checks are slated to begin going out towards the end of April.

The Internal Revenue Service, a division of the Treasury Department, rolled out a new app aimed to expedite the process of Americans getting their checks by helping taxpayers who the IRS has no direct deposit details for submitting their banking information.

To keep up with the demand for issuing stimulus checks, the IRS, which has lost thousands of jobs in recent years, is gathering the information submitted through the app to speed up direct deposit payments, and on Wednesday denied that the app crashed soon after launch.

However, immediately after the app’s rollout, it apparently wasn’t working for some and experienced glitches leading to a “payment status not available” response when users tried to enter their information. Other taxpayers waiting for their checks reported errors, or payments going to the wrong people.

“IRS is actively monitoring site volume, and if site volume gets too high, users are sent to an online ‘waiting room’ for a brief wait until space becomes available, much like private-sector online sites,” said the agency in a statement. “Media reports saying the tool ‘crashed’ are inaccurate.”

The IRS plans to send out a letter notifying them up to two weeks after their payment is processed.

The IRS as of 2018 had 9,510 auditors, down a third from 2010. The rate of audits themselves dropped 42 percent, and the agency’s budget has fallen $2 billion.

The Center on Budget and Policy priorities found that the IRS’ enforcement division to be the hardest hit, losing roughly 14,000 employees — more than one-quarter of the enforcement staff — since 2010.

Experts at the Taxpayer Advocate Service say the IRS has seen its budget cut by 20% since 2010, leading to thin staffing as the agency now scrambles to deal with taxpayers concerned about the status of their tax refunds and stimulus checks.

The IRS is also now staring down a tax filing deadline that has now been delayed to July.

Some agency watchers have argued moving resources away from the IRS call center into other needed areas could help now as it responds to the workload surge.

In a report issued by the Taxpayer Advocate Service, former IRS Commissioner Charles Rossotti said, “I have never understood why anyone would think it is good business to fail to answer a phone call from someone who owed you money.”

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