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Trump administration recalls tens of thousands of federal workers as it seeks to blunt shutdown’s impact

The Internal Revenue Service Building in Washington (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
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The Trump administration on Tuesday said it is calling back tens of thousands of federal workers to fulfill key government tasks, including disbursing tax refunds, overseeing flight safety and inspecting the nation’s food and drug supply, as it seeks to blunt the impact of the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.

The nearly 50,000 furloughed federal employees are being sent back to work without pay - part of a group of about 800,000 federal workers who aren’t receiving paychecks during the shutdown, which affects dozens of federal agencies large and small. A federal judge on Tuesday rejected a bid by unions representing air traffic controllers and other federal workers to force the government to pay them if they are required to work.

The efforts by the Trump administration to keep the government operating during the partial shutdown came as the White House and Congress made no progress toward resolving their underlying dispute.

President Trump had extended an unusual invitation to rank-and-file House Democrats in an attempt to woo them and cause a divide within the Democratic camp over the shutdown, but they quickly rebuffed the outreach as Democratic leaders voiced concerns the meeting would be little more than a photo opportunity that bolsters Trump.

With Democrats in the House pushing forward on bills to reopen the government, Trump trying a new strategy virtually everyday to win funding for his proposed border wall, and usual deal-makers like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) largely sitting out the battle, there appeared no path toward opening the government as the partial shutdown entered its 25th day.

The differing developments left a discordant image of Washington. As political leaders were paralyzed, the federal government itself was looking for ways to show flexibility in determining who can and can’t work.

As the longest shutdown in history continues, President Trump's options for reopening the government are becoming limited. Here are a few paths he could take. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Tens of thousands of Internal Revenue Service workers will come back to work for tax filing season later this month under the agency’s new emergency plan for the government shutdown released Tuesday, but the agency will remain unable to conduct audits or other key functions.

The IRS’s new plan for the shutdown calls for keeping 46,000 IRS employees on the job during filing season, meaning that close to 60 percent of the agency’s workforce will be working despite the lapse in the agency’s funding. At the start of the government shutdown in late December, fewer than 10,000 IRS workers — about 12 percent of its overall workforce — were kept on the job.

The agency will continue not performing audits during the shutdown, although the IRS has years to audit a tax return after it is filed. Walk-in taxpayer assistance centers are also expected to remain closed, and the plan says there will be a reduction in tax-related assistance and support for disaster victims. The agency will continue to conduct criminal investigations.

Federal officials announced earlier this month that tax refunds would go out to U.S. taxpayers despite the shutdown, in a dramatic reversal of precedent from prior shutdowns directed by the White House. In 2018, the IRS paid more than $147 billion in tax refunds to 48.5 million households from Jan. 29 and March 2, suggesting a halt in these payments could have broad consequences for the America economy.

The White House has defended the decision to issue refunds, with Office of Management and Budget acting director Russell Vought telling reporters the administration had tried making the shutdown as “painless as possible consistent with the law.” Bringing back workers is necessary to “maintain the integrity of the federal tax collection process,” the Treasury Department said in its updated shutdown plan released Tuesday.

Former IRS officials and legal experts have doubted the administration’s grounds for recalling workers to issue refunds, arguing it is unclear if the refunds are essential for protecting life or property. The administration has also faced criticism for bringing back IRS workers who process key forms for the mortgage industry following pressure to do so by the mortgage industry.

‘Could you make these guys essential?’: Mortgage industry gets shutdown relief after appeal to senior Treasury officials

The Trump administration has recalled thousands of federal workers across multiple agencies, part of a broader effort to keep basic government services intact despite a funding lapse that on Tuesday entered its 25th day. The Federal Aviation Administration said Tuesday it expects about 2,200 inspectors to return to the job this week. Similarly, the Food and Drug Administration has also recalled hundreds of workers to conduct inspections of “high risk food facilities,” as well as inspectors of facilities that manufacture drugs and medical devices, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said on twitter on Tuesday.

The vast majority of the IRS employees are not expected to be paid during the shutdown, though Congress has signaled its intent to issue backpay after the shutdown is over.

The National Treasury Employees Union, which represents federal workers, has sued the administration and argued it cannot “continue to force more and more employees to show up in exchange only for an IOU,” according to a news release from the union.

The Trump administration has not said whether the shutdown will cause it to postpone the tax filing season, which is expected to be particularly complicated this year because of the new GOP tax law. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee that oversees the IRS, said on twitter he has been unable to learn if refund payments will be delayed.

The Trump administration has faced skepticism over some of its moves during the shutdown to minimize the scope of the damage to American taxpayers.

“It just strikes me as we go forward that we’re increasingly moving toward the Trump administration making convenient choices as to the pieces of government they like and think are essential,” said Philip Hackney, a law professor and tax expert at the University of Pittsburgh.

Negotiations between President Trump and top Democrats are at a standstill. The president has said he won’t sign legislation to reopen to government unless it contains billions in taxpayer funding for new walls along the U.S.-Mexico border, while Democrats have blocked any new funding for walls.

Out of work and behind on her bills, a furloughed FDA employee in Ohio says she may have to leave government service if the shutdown goes on much longer. (Video: Whitney Shefte/The Washington Post)