MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Today, Day 27 of the partial government shutdown, the State Department announced it is bringing furloughed employees back to work. The department says it has been able to find enough money to pay for them for one pay period, two weeks. But after that, pay is up in the air. Now, this is not the only example of the Trump administration bringing back workers as the shutdown has dragged on. But how long might this last, and is this even legal?
Well, NPR's Ayesha Rascoe has been looking into that. She joins me now from the White House. Hey there.
AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Hello.
KELLY: So I said other examples besides the State Department. What other parts of the administration are bringing back furloughed workers?
RASCOE: So it runs the gamut, and it really stretches across different agencies. But they're bringing back workers for a whole lot of different reasons. For instance, the government has called back 46,000 IRS workers to begin processing tax refunds in time for tax filing season. In that case, though, they're working without pay. The administration has continued to provide food stamps, and that's based on this loophole in a prior spending bill that allowed them to expend additional money for about 30 days after it expired. That runs out around January 20. And you also have of the administration bringing back people at the Interior Department to handle planning for an oil and gas lease sale for the Gulf of Mexico.
KELLY: Now, how are they able to do this? Is this digging around in one pot of money to shift it to another?
RASCOE: Some of that. So each program has a different rationale behind the decision. Some of them, like with the State Department and with Interior - they're finding leftover money they can use until it runs out. I talked to Gordon Gray, director of fiscal policy at the American Action Forum. It's kind of an economic think tank. And he said agencies do have some leeway with spending, and they can look for pockets of extra money.
GORDON GRAY: They are sort of looking under the seat cushions. When appropriations acts are passed, they do tend to have some built-in flexibility, but it's limited.
RASCOE: So there's only so much money to be found. In other cases, they're finding a legal basis to bring employees back. Basically under the law, you can continue government operations when it comes to protecting life and property, but operations can also continue if the government has an obligation it's supposed to meet that doesn't require annual funding - for example, paying out Social Security benefits during a shutdown. With the tax refunds, the Trump administration is arguing that they have to give out the refunds because people are owed them, and that's why they're able to bring people back.
KELLY: OK, Ayesha, you just used that the phrases there under the law and legal basis, but is this - are we sure this is completely legit and legal?
RASCOE: Well, not everyone agrees with the interpretations that the administration is making.
RASCOE: Some critics say the administration is stretching their interpretation of the law. With the IRS, there's no deadline for refunds to go out, so these critics say there's no justification for processing them during a shutdown. The Trump administration disputes this. They argue that Congress expects them to distribute tax refunds promptly, so that's why they're taking action. There are also critics who question whether money can be moved around in some of these ways, like fees at the National Park that are supposed to be used for services for visitors - are being used kind of for maintenance of the parks. And so there are questions about that.
KELLY: And I suppose even if you set the legal questions completely to the side, they're all kind of practical issues here.
RASCOE: Yeah, so they're - the overarching issue is that even if you find extra money, it will run out eventually. The State Department only has enough money for one more pay period. And with food stamps, there's only really enough money through February, maybe a little bit beyond that but not much. So the money doesn't go very far, and then you're requiring people to work without pay for a lot of this. Like, that's what this depends on. And at some point, they may just stop working or not do as good a job because they want to be compensated.
KELLY: NPR's Ayesha Rascoe at the White House, thank you.
RASCOE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.