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IRS Computer System Crashes A Year After An Official Warning Was Issued


If you are one of the millions of Americans who tried to file your federal tax return electronically on Tuesday but couldn't, you might be wondering what happened. NPR's Brian Naylor reports we now have a better idea of what caused the snafu.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: The problem arose in the early hours of Tuesday morning, the busiest day of the tax year for the IRS. According to the agency, a piece of hardware went down connected to the IRS's master file, the core processing system that holds all taxpayer information. The glitch meant other applications couldn't access the master file data.

The issue was fixed about 11 hours later, the IRS says, and the agency was able to accept tax returns again. The delay was an inconvenience for taxpayers and a high-profile embarrassment for the agency, but it didn't really come as a surprise. Here's IRS official Jeffrey Tribiano testifying before a House oversight committee last October.


JEFFREY TRIBIANO: We are concerned that the risk of a catastrophic system failure is increasing as our infrastructure continues to age.

NAYLOR: Former IRS Commissioner John Koskinen says the computer glitch was the predictable consequence of years of congressional budget cuts which in turn led to significant staff cutbacks.

JOHN KOSKINEN: The budget has been continually under pressure for the last eight years even though - so we have almost 20,000 fewer employees and 10 million more taxpayers. So sooner or later, something's going to give.

NAYLOR: Republican lawmakers counter that incompetence at the agency was just as much to blame. During a debate yesterday on a measure to improve IT systems at the IRS, Republican Congresswoman Jackie Walorski of Indiana pointed to a system the IRS tried to install called the Return Review Program, or RRP. She said it's years behind schedule and millions over budget.


JACKIE WALORSKI: I hear complaints about the IRS's budget, and I think about the RRP. Senior leadership gave no direction. No one knew how it would fit into the big picture, and contractors were way out of the loop. Everyone essentially ran in circles until they ran out of money.

NAYLOR: At one time, the IRS's computing system was a state-of-the-art marvel. In the early 1960s, people would make the trek to the IRS computing center in Martinsburg, W. Va., just to gawk according to University of Georgia history professor Stephen Mihm.

STEPHEN MIHM: They were all funneled down into this huge mainframe facility that was truly state-of-the-art. I mean, it was really cutting-edge so much so that people would go there almost as tourists to see this amazing display of computing power processing the nation's tax return.

NAYLOR: But Mihm says being an early adopter ironically led to today's problems at the IRS. The agency still uses a computer language from that era called Assembly that few know anymore.

MIHM: It's very hard to get out of that once you've gone down it. It's very hard to just sort of start entirely from scratch and build an entirely new system.

NAYLOR: It turns out the solution to Tuesday's glitch, which, by the way, occurred in that same West Virginia facility, was something familiar to anyone who's had a balky computer. According to the IRS, they simply rebooted the system. Congress approved more money for the IRS last month to help it rewrite the tax code to reflect the changes lawmakers made in last year's tax cut legislation. But Koskinen is skeptical it's enough to fix what's been called the most antiquated computer system in the federal government. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.
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