"Several of our systems are not currently operating," begins an alarming statement from the IRS posted Feb. 3, 2016.
A hardware malfunction, which affected several computer systems at the Internal Revenue Service, apparently caused the tax agency to stop being able to accept electronically filed tax returns while "a number of taxpayer and tax practitioner tools" also became unavailable.
The IRS hardware meltdown doesn't exactly come at a good time, either. Mailboxes around the country are currently filling up with W2s, and Americans are making their plans to (postpone/ignore/avoid/procrastinate and then finally break down and begrudgingly) file their taxes.
The IRS is still investigating the exact scope and scale of the outage, saying in part:
"At this time, the IRS does not anticipate major refund disruptions; we continue to expect that 9 out of 10 taxpayers will receive their refunds within 21 days."
Two of the services most affected by outages were the IRS's e-filing system, which lets you file your taxes electronically, and a program called Where's My Refund, which is a passive-aggressively named program that tracks your filed tax refund.
Both of these programs are modernized versions of the IRS's surprisingly outdated computer systems.
The IRS's tech capabilities are actually pretty alarming. Some of it (at least, as recently as 2007) is still being run on antiquated magnetic tape systems originating in the 1960s that are about as "cutting edge" as lead paint. I wouldn't be surprised if the inside of the IRS building still largely looks like it did when they filmed this introductory video in 1966:
But unfortunately, reliance on old systems as well as the failure of new ones are only symptoms of a larger problem.
The IRS has been steadily defunded over the last several years; down about $2 billion from 2010 to 2014. That'd be a huge problem for any government agency, but for the IRS, it's particularly devastating.
"Vital federal services [have] suffered as funding has declined," reports the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "The IRS faces cost pressures common to most programs, such as a growing workload and the effects of inflation. But it also faces unique demands, such as the growing problem of identity theft and the tax compliance issues associated with offshore accounts."
The economy has been rapidly changing while operations at the IRS have struggled even to remain stagnant.
The IRS is also dramatically understaffed. In 2014 (the year the IRS had to brace for Obamacare-related tax credits and code changes), nearly half of all customer calls were answered, and long lines were commonplace at filing centers across the country.
The staffing problem is even worse when you consider that the average age of an IRS contracting officer is 46, meaning that the vast majority of the IRS can soon retire.
John Koskinen, Commissioner at the Internal Revenue Service addressed this problem in a statement in March, saying in part:
"I have advised our senior leadership that this is the last year that we will deal with budget constraints by freezing or severely limiting new hires into the agency. We have interesting and exciting career opportunities to offer to young people beginning their careers, and we need to encourage more of them to join the agency."
Selling a bureaucratic government agency to young people as an exciting career opportunity might be tough, though. The IRS has such a poor reputation that convincing anyone to work there is a challenge. Another government organization, the FBI, can't even get young people to stop smoking weed long enough to pass the necessary drug test to work for them, and they have those cool windbreakers. The IRS can't even offer that.
Not to mention the fact that no one under 45 knows how to use this thing:
Long story short: Don't put off filing your taxes for too long this year.
The IRS needs a lot more help, but it won't be coming to save the day before your taxes are due this season. The IRS is busy getting their e-files back up to speed and still needs time to run your hastily scribbled information through a monolithic bookshelf while workers push a series of flashing buttons and (just guessing here) probably turn two keys at the exact same time to reveal a large red lever which, when pulled, spits your tax return out of a dot matrix printer while a siren wails in the background. Or something like that.
It's basically a Soviet-era Bond film in there. So get your taxes done now, before it's too late.