Trump’s pet projects thrive during shutdown while others falter

The Trump administration has recalled thousands of furloughed federal workers to process tax returns and continue work on offshore drilling permits. But programs that are out of favor with the White House — such as the Energy Star consumer ratings system — aren’t getting the same treatment.

Across the government, initiatives that don’t align with President Donald Trump’s agenda are flickering off faster than favored ones during the partial government shutdown, leading critics to charge that he has weaponized the country’s longest funding lapse.

In some cases, programs that the Trump administration has unsuccessfully tried to kill off have gone dark. The Environmental Protection Agency deactivated the website of its Energy Star program, which encourages consumers to pick products from dishwashers to houses rated high in energy efficiency. “For the duration of the U.S. government shutdown, all ENERGY STAR tools, resources, and data services will not be available,” its website reads.

The IRS headquarters in Washington
The IRS headquarters in Washington.

“We are concerned the administration is inappropriately using the federal government shutdown to undermine this critical consumer savings program,” New Jersey Democratic Representative Frank Pallone, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and other committee members, wrote in a letter to the EPA.

Michael Abboud, an EPA spokesman, said the decision to shut the Energy Star website was made by career employees because “the website does not function as intended when EPA staff and contractors are not available to staff it.”

The shutdown, now in its fourth week, has seen roughly a quarter of the government shuttered over Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion for a wall on the border with Mexico. On Tuesday, Senate leaders agreed to vote on rival proposals for reopening the government that, even if neither passes, marks the first attempt at finding a path out of the shutdown.

Even agencies that are fully funded apparently aren’t immune from allegations of favoritism. The Energy Department is restricting travel for employees in two divisions that focus on renewable energy and advanced energy research technology, according to a letter by Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, chairwoman of the committee on science, space, and technology, which cited reports received by her staff.

Trump has proposed sharply cutting funding for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and eliminating the Advanced Projects Research Agency — Energy, in budget requests.

The Energy Department said the reports were the result of department-wide guidance being misinterpreted and that no travel ban was in place.

Recalled Interior Department workers are doing prep work for upcoming sales of drilling rights in the Gulf of Mexico and working on a five-year plan for selling leases across the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf. Interior Department workers also have been issuing offshore drilling permits throughout the shutdown, just as happened during the 2013 shutdown, under President Barack Obama.

But the department, the subject of intense public scrutiny, hasn’t been accepting Freedom of Information Act Requests during the shutdown — a departure from other closed-down agencies. And some of the agency’s websites used for submitting public comment on regulations have been taken offline as well.

Faith Vander Voort, an Interior Department spokeswoman, said that as of Tuesday, the agency had starting accepting FOIA requests in a “limited capacity” related to the Office of the Secretary by via email, fax and regular mail. The agency’s online FOIA request form remained offline.

Critics who see a dark motive in the selectivity of the shutdown became more suspicious when they read a guest editorial by an anonymous senior administration official that appeared in the conservative Daily Caller.

“The lapse in appropriations is more than a battle over a wall,” the writer said. “It’s is an opportunity to strip wasteful government agencies for good.”

To be sure, the Trump administration has tried to continue or prolong an array of government services, from food stamps to tax refund checks. And even some Trump administration priorities — including a policy change to allow year-round sales of higher-ethanol gasoline and payments to farmers designed to blunt the effects of China’s retaliatory tariffs on agricultural commodities — have remained stalled by the shutdown.

A 149-year-old federal law bars agencies from spending money Congress hasn’t given to them, with only limited exceptions for “emergencies involving the safety of human life or the protection of property,” leading some to claim the administration is violating the law by keeping favored programs running.

Thousands of employees were recalled to help process loans and tax documents for farmers at the Agriculture Department, process tax refunds at the Internal Revenue Service, and facilitate the sale of offshore drilling rights.

At the same time, the EPA has halted inspections of oil refineries, chemical factories, manufacturing plants and other industrial facilities, increasing the potential that environmental violations will go unnoticed. At the Department of Homeland Security, members of an advisory council focusing on migrant children and families in custody at the U.S.-Mexico border were forced to cancel plans to visit migrant detention facilities because of the shutdown, the Daily Beast reported.

Priorities, Priorities

“What we are seeing is an effort to avoid bad press and keep favored constituencies happy,” said Sam Berger, a senior adviser at the Center for American Progress who worked at the Office of Management and Budget under Obama. “It’s a prioritization by leadership.”

The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Patrick Donnelly, Nevada state director for the environmental group Center for Biological Diversity, said he was surprised when he tried to access a website maintained by the National Park Service for public comment only to find it had been taken down. Similarly, an endangered species database maintained by the Fish and Wildlife Service had been taken offline as well, Donnelly said.

On Data.gov, the federal government’s centralized repository for scientific data, information on population and demographics, and medical research, has been taken offline.

“We believe they are just being taken down to confound the public from participating in the environmental process,” Donnelly said. “There does seem to be a pattern here where the information the public needs to interact with our government is being closed off for no good reason. It doesn’t cost them any money just to leave the website online.”

—With assistance from Jennifer A. Dlouhy and Ryan Beene