- The Washington Times - Monday, January 28, 2019

Federal agencies and museums worked to clear their backlogs, restock gift shops and otherwise reboot Monday after Congress ended the longest government shutdown in history.

The Smithsonian said its weekday staff returned to clean up, double-check videos and interactive exhibits, and replenish cafes and stores before its museums and the National Zoo reopen Tuesday.

The National Transportation Safety Board, meanwhile, said it will get back on investigations delayed by the shutdown, including probes of 22 aviation, marine, highway and railroad accidents that would have drawn in-person investigators under normal circumstances.

“It is possible that perishable evidence may have been lost, which potentially could prevent determination of probable cause,” the agency said.

Elsewhere, Food and Drug Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said the FDA will work expeditiously to work through the backlog of drug applications that piled up during the 35-day shutdown.

The agency set up special tables where workers could inquire about benefits, pay, badges, computer issues or other post-shutdown problems.

“I know there will be additional challenges ahead as we catch up on missed work and deadlines. I’ll support you in all of these efforts as we forge ahead as ONE,” Dr. Gottlieb tweeted.

Congress approved a stopgap funding bill Friday to reopen the shuttered agencies through Feb. 15. The three-week deal ended a shutdown that began Dec. 22, after President Trump demanded funding for his border wall.

The shutdown ended in the nick of time for the IRS, which turned to the start of tax-filing season Monday. By midday, the revenue agency said it had received several million returns.

Edward Karl, vice president of taxation for the American Institute of CPAs, said he expects a challenging start to the filing rush, especially since the GOP’s sweeping changes to the tax code will apply.

“This is basically the first full filing season where the new rules are applying to individual and most business, and then layer on that a shutdown that impacted the IRS and the Treasury,” he said. “It’s not going to be the best of circumstances.”

The IRS has been sending out tax notices on underreported income and other issues for weeks. Those notices usually prompt a back and forth with the revenue agency, though filers and accountants had trouble contacting anyone during the shutdown, Mr. Karl said.

“Five weeks’ worth of a backlog of questions are going to hit all at once,” he said.

The IRS said it is “working to promptly resume normal operations” and that taxpayers can help by filing online through e-file and requesting direct deposit of refunds. It expects the first batch of refunds to go out the first week of February, as in previous years.

More broadly, employees across the federal workforce are wondering if they’re truly out of the woods, as Mr. Trump threatens to let agencies shut down again if he doesn’t get wall funding in the border security talks.

An incoming federal employee, who is set to start work next week, told The Washington Times that the government reopened at the perfect time for her to at least get started in her new position.

She would be eligible to receive back pay if Congress fails to reach a settlement at the end of the three-week period, resulting in another shutdown. Otherwise she would be left waiting in limbo — without getting on board and accruing paid hours.

“I’m truly looking forward to starting my job, but it’s unnerving to not know when your next paycheck will arrive,” she said. “I also worry that the threat of government shutdowns is deterring skilled workers from pursuing opportunities at the federal government.”

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers are trying to pick up the pieces.

One faction is pushing a bill to eliminate the possibility of future stoppages.

Another faction wants to go back and pay government contractors who were left without work during the partial closure. Congress already has approved backpay for the hundreds of thousands of employees furloughed for five weeks.

And Sen. Tammy Baldwin, Wisconsin Democrat, is pushing legislation that would pay interest on workers’ paychecks that didn’t go out on time.

“It’s only fair that if the federal government can charge you interest for being late on your taxes, then it should be paying interest on late paychecks,” she said. “I am calling on Senate Majority Leader [Mitch] McConnell to bring this bill to the floor for a vote.”

The amount of interest would be equal to the amount federal agencies incur when they pay vendors late. Currently, it is 3.625 percent.

⦁ Gabriella Muñoz contributed to this report.

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