While most Americans thought they wouldn't be affected by the partial government shutdown, anyone with a federal tax refund coming to them will have to wait until the stalemate is over, according to the Wall Street Journal.
As one of the agencies which now lacks funding, the IRS and the US tax collector are operating with roughly 1/8 of their usual staff under a shutdown plan it's operating under outside the tax-filing season.
During a shutdown, the IRS can continue activities that protect government property, and the agency may bring in more workers soon to prepare for the income-tax filing season. Even during a shutdown, the agency still processes some tax returns that include payments, keeps computer systems running and continues criminal investigations. But the IRS generally doesn’t conduct audits, respond to taxpayer questions outside the filing season or—brace yourself—pay refunds.
A shutdown that gets resolved within a few weeks would have little ultimate effect on taxpayers, but lawmakers have made little or no movement toward a deal. That stalemate raises the prospect of an unprecedented extended closure during the individual income-tax filing season, which typically starts in mid-to-late January. The IRS hasn’t announced a start date yet for the 2019 filing season, the first under the tax law that Congress passed in 2017. -WSJ
"We’re in uncharted territory as each day gets longer," said Mark Steber, chief tax officer at Jackson Hewitt Tax Service Inc.
This means that early filers won't receive their expected refunds - which may put pressure on President Trump and congress to hammer out a deal. President Trump says he won't sign any legislation that doesn't include $5 billion for his border wall, while Congressional Democrats say that's not happening.
If last year's tax refund figures are any indication, there are potentially hundreds of billions of dollars on the line for more than 55 percent of US households.
By Feb. 2, 2018, the IRS had paid $12.6 billion in refunds to more than six million households. By Feb. 16, the IRS had paid $101.2 billion to nearly 32 million households. And by March 30, the IRS had paid $212 billion to 73 million households.
For many Americans, the tax refund is the single largest financial event of the year, and the people who tend to file early in the season are taxpayers who count on large refunds to pay down debt, catch up on bills or make major purchases. Those are disproportionately low-income households that benefit from the earned-income tax credit and other provisions that give them no income-tax liability or a net benefit from the income-tax system. -WSJ
Retailers, meanwhile, count on people to spend their tax refunds beginning in February - as people who will be getting money back typically file their taxes as soon as possible.
"Wealthier filers generally have more sophisticated returns and file later so they should not be affected as much," said former IRS director of legislative affairs, Floyd Williams.
Taxpayers with questions about their returns, meanwhile, will have difficulty reaching the IRS - as the agency typically doesn't respond to questions outside the filing system.
"The commissioner’s going to have to make a call: What does this mean for the beginning of the filing season?," said Obama administration Treasury tax-policy official Mark Mazur.
During this first part of the shutdown, just 12.5% of the IRS’s nearly 80,000 employees were considered exempt from furloughs. In early 2018, in preparation for potential shutdowns during the filing season, the IRS contingency plan made 43.5% of the agency’s workforce exempt, suggesting many more staffers will return to work as filing season begins.
In addition, the agency received some two-year appropriations to implement the new tax law, so some activities related to the new law have been continuing, including updating technology and publications. -WSJ
Another factor which should make this year's tax season more complicated are several tax-law changes which will affect both forms and rules for individuals and businesses, which will undoubtedly require more help from IRS employees.
"You worry about the filing season because of the tax-law changes anyway. So there’s no way that a shutdown is helpful," said former acting IRS commissioner Steven Miller. "The risk was already high as to whether the service could already get done what the service needed to get done with the paltry resources they already have."