One of the notable recent elements of this partial government shutdown – the longest in history – is that the Trump administration keeps designating more and more of the federal government essential, or excepted from the furlough, ordering many thousands of workers back to the office to process tax returns, perform safety inspections and more – all without pay.
The practical effect is that more government workers will be doing their jobs without their paychecks, but it will also work to mute the impact of the shutdown in the everyday lives of Americans who aren’t directly touched by the shutdown.
Only about 25% of the government was affected by the shutdown to begin with since Congress had already funded the Pentagon and other agencies. But there are a growing number of essential tasks performed by that quarter, which includes the Department of Justice, the Treasury Department and the Department of Homeland Security, among others. All have been working without pay. That includes members of the Coast Guard, who had been working throughout the shutdown, but on Tuesday became the first US service members to not be paid because of a shutdown when their paychecks came through empty, Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Karl L. Schultz said.
The largest and most incredible of the switches from furloughed to essential is that the Internal Revenue Service will officially be recalling tens of thousands of workers – 36,000 of them – to process tax filings and refunds. The move runs afoul of previous guidance but will be welcome news to Americans who rely on refunds. Less so for the IRS workers forced to work without pay if the shutdown carries forward. That means well more than half the IRS workforce – 57% – will be working despite the shutdown.
They aren’t the only IRS employees being recalled.
When the mortgage industry faced the prospect of issuing fewer mortgages because employees of the IRS income verification service were furloughed, potentially slowing home purchases, the mortgage industry complained and the IRS decided to get the service back up and running and allow those few workers to collect paychecks by diverting fees the service collects.
The top official at the Mortgage Bankers Association told The Washington Post he made a direct appeal to officials at the Treasury Department.
“Could you make these guys essential?” was the question Robert Broeksmit, chief executive of the Mortgage Bankers Association, told the Post he directed at the Treasury Department. Those workers will be paid using user fees.
Federal courts, which are not controlled by the administration, have now twice announced that existing funds could help their work force limp along with pay. The latest guidance is that court offices will run out of money January 25, at which point essential staff will work without pay.
One group that hadn’t been working is Food and Drug Administration food inspectors, who hadn’t been inspecting food since the partial shutdown began. But it was announced Monday that inspectors would return, without pay, to start inspections again.
The FDA administrator praised the inspector workforce for being the “tip of the spear” of consumer safety when he announced the move on Twitter.
The Federal Aviation Administration announced Tuesday it would recall an additional group of furloughed employees, according to the New York Times, adding thousands of unpaid workers to the air traffic controllers and other FAA employees who had been working since the shutdown started.
Food inspections, law enforcement and taxes – the list of essential or recalled employees grows. And it also includes the National Park Service, which has recalled some rangers to keep parks open, as some were overflowing with trash and waste, despite the shutdown.
When it looked like hunters might not be able to use federal grounds to hunt, the US Fish and Wildlife Service ordered some workers back on the job using funds carried over from the previous appropriations for the next month, according to NPR.
An Alaska office of the Bureau of Land Management found a way to stay open to get required public comment sessions on a new pipeline out of the way.
There’s a big difference between public comment sessions and food inspections or law enforcement activities. But as the shutdown continues with nothing in the way of constructive debate on how to end it occurring, it’s notable that parts of the government are finding ways to stay open even though they have no funding. The idea is that workers will eventually get back pay.
Much has been written about how this longest-ever government shutdown is hurting federal workers who are either furloughed or working without pay and the human and financial toll of so many having to either dip into savings or, as their government suggests, offer to do chores in lieu of pay their rent. Those called back to work will have a harder time making that barter.
The last time the government shut down, Mick Mulvaney, who was then director of the Office of Management and Budget and is now acting White House chief of staff, said the Trump administration would treat shutdowns differently and keep them from being “weaponized” as he alleged the Obama administration did to make the shutdown seem worse than it actually was.
The opposite seems to be happening in this record-breaking shutdown as more and more government workers are being recalled to lessen the effects on the rest of the country. It only suggests more and more of the government is, in point of fact, “essential.”