WASHINGTON • The Trump administration has ordered thousands of furloughed federal employees back to work without pay to inspect planes, issue tax refunds, monitor food safety and facilitate the sale of offshore oil drilling rights, according to an updated contingency plan released on Tuesday.
The efforts in recent days illustrate how President Donald Trump is trying to limit the impact of the partial government shutdown and shield favoured industries as the funding impasse thwarts the deployment of new aircraft, stock offerings and even craft beers.
The Obama administration took the opposite approach in 2013 by erecting barricades around open-air monuments and largely closing national parks - then leveraging public anger to blame Republicans for halted government services.
Critics say the Trump administration is skirting federal law by continuing some functions amid the political stalemate between congresional Democrats and the President over whether to fund a wall on the US-Mexico border.
A 149-year-old law bars agencies from spending money Congress has not given to them, with only limited exceptions for "emergencies involving the safety of human life or the protection of property".
"This administration is being creative in its ability to break the law and test the boundaries," said Mr Sam Berger, a senior adviser at the Centre for American Progress who worked at the Office of Management and Budget under former president Barack Obama.
"They are really walking up to and past that line," Mr Berger said.
"It's clear they are making political calls, and they aren't letting decisions be dictated by sound management, by the law or by really anything other than the next 10 minutes of news coverage and how they can win the day."
The responsibility for prosecuting violations of the 1870 Antideficiency Act falls to the Justice Department - and no one has ever been hauled to court to account for flouting the law.
It is not clear if anyone else would have standing to challenge agency spending and activities that continue amid a shutdown.
Pay cheques for some 800,000 government employees have been halted amid the lapse in federal funding, including about 420,000 who have been forced to work anyway.
Mr Trump was scheduled to sign legislation yesterday that would provide government employees with back pay after the shutdown ends.
The Trump administration is calling back some 46,000 furloughed employees, with many put to work issuing tax refunds even though the Treasury Department previously decided a shutdown would bar the activity.
The National Treasury Employees Union is suing the federal government for making those employees work without pay, arguing that forcing them to process tax refunds falls outside the scope of activities that should be permitted during a shutdown.
A federal judge in Washington on Tuesday rejected a request by that union and other federal workers to issue a temporary order compelling the US to pay its workers or let them take jobs elsewhere.
The plaintiffs included the Air Traffic Controllers Association, as work to patrol the skies continues amid the shutdown. The Federal Aviation Administration said on Tuesday it had "determined that after three weeks, it is appropriate to recall inspectors and engineers".
Braving freezing temperatures, dozens of federal workers and workers' rights activists in New York City gathered on Tuesday to protest against the longest government shutdown in US history, which was in its 26th day yesterday.