Sidestepping Congress, Trump Signs Executive Measures for Pandemic Relief
President Trump took executive action on Saturday to circumvent Congress and try to extend an array of federal pandemic relief, resorting to a legally dubious set of edicts whose impact was unclear, as negotiations over an economic recovery package appeared on the brink of collapse.
It was not clear what authority Mr. Trump had to act on his own on the measures or what immediate effect, if any, they would have, given that Congress controls federal spending. But his decision to sign the measures — billed as a federal eviction ban, a payroll tax suspension, and relief for student borrowers and $400 a week for the unemployed — reflected the failure of two weeks of talks between White House officials and top congressional Democrats to strike a deal on a broad relief plan as crucial benefits have expired with no resolution in sight.
Mr. Trump’s move also illustrated the heightened concern of a president staring down re-election in the middle of a historic recession and a pandemic, and determined to show voters that he was doing something to address the crises. But despite Mr. Trump’s assertions on Saturday that his actions “will take care of this entire situation,” the orders also leave a number of critical bipartisan funding proposals unaddressed, including providing assistance to small businesses, billions of dollars to schools ahead of the new school year, aid to states and cities and a second round of $1,200 stimulus checks to Americans.
“Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer have chosen to hold this vital assistance hostage,” Mr. Trump said, savaging the two top Democrats and their $3.4 trillion opening offer during a news conference at his private golf club in New Jersey, his second in two days. A few dozen club guests were in attendance, and the president appeared to revel in their laughter at his jokes denouncing his political rivals.
“We’ve had it,” he added, repeatedly referring to his directives as “bills,” a term reserved for legislation passed by Congress. He accused the Democrats of holding up negotiations with demands for provisions that appeared to have little to do with the pandemic, though he made little mention of comparable items in the $1 trillion proposal Republicans unveiled last month.
Democrats have refused to agree to that plan, pressing instead for a far more expansive economic relief package, at least twice as large, that would provide billions more for states and cities and food aid, and revive the lapsed $600-per-week enhanced federal jobless aid payments. (Republicans are proposing to revive the payments, but at a rate of $400 a week.)
It was unclear whether the effort to bypass Congress would kill the already-stalled negotiations altogether, though Mr. Trump told reporters he would be open to continuing the discussions and Democratic leaders responded by demanding that the talks resume.
“We’re disappointed that instead of putting in the work to solve Americans’ problems, the president instead chose to stay on his luxury golf course to announce unworkable, weak and narrow policy announcements to slash the unemployment benefits that millions desperately need and endanger seniors’ Social Security and Medicare,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the minority leader, said in a statement. They called on Republicans to “return to the table” to continue negotiating and “meet us halfway.”
It was unclear whether the aid would even materialize if lawsuits are filed challenging their legality. Mr. Trump walked away from the lectern after just a few questions from reporters about his claim that he had the ability to circumvent Congress.
Signing the orders was a familiar tactic from a president who has portrayed himself as the ultimate deal-maker, but in practice has shown little interest in or skill for negotiating with Congress, bristling against the limitations of his power. It recalled his decision in 2018 to shut down the government over his demand for funding for a wall on the southwestern border, his signature campaign promise, in an effort to force Democrats to agree to the money. They never did, and the president ultimately declared a national emergency to divert other federal money to fund it himself, a move that drew legal challenges.
Shortly after the event on Saturday, the White House released texts of the measures — one executive order and three memorandums — which included several flourishes that read like political documents in accusing Democrats of playing games. One invoked the Stafford Act, a federal disaster relief statute, to divert money from a homeland security fund and allow states to use money already allocated by Congress to help people who have been laid off amid the coronavirus pandemic, effectively allowing them to apply for disaster relief to cover lost wages. The mechanism would pull from the same fund that covers natural disasters in the middle of what is expected to be a highly active hurricane season.
Mr. Trump claimed that the action would provide $400 weekly in enhanced unemployment benefits, $200 less than laid-off workers had been receiving under benefits that lapsed at the end of July. But with states being directed to pick up $100 of that aid, the federal amount would be no more than $300 a week.
And there is another catch — the text of the memorandum says that the $300 can only be paid to people who first qualify for $100 in aid paid by their state.
It was unclear how quickly states, whose unemployment systems had already been overburdened by the record numbers of new jobless claims, would be able to adjust to a new system, or whether they will have the resources to supplement an additional benefit.
“If they don’t, they don’t — that’s going to be their problem,” Mr. Trump said.
He also retroactively signed a memorandum suspending the payroll tax from Aug. 1 through the end of 2020, though the order would just defer the payment of the taxes. (Mr. Trump vowed that if re-elected in November, he would extend the deferral and the payments.)
If Mr. Trump tried to make a payroll tax cut permanent, it would have a drastic effect on the funding of Social Security, which he has previously vowed not to cut.
The memorandum that Mr. Trump called a moratorium on evictions did not revive the expired moratorium that was part of the $2.2 trillion stimulus law passed in March. Instead, it said that federal policy was to minimize evictions during the pandemic and that officials should identify statutory ways to help homeowners and renters.
Long before taking office, Mr. Trump criticized Barack Obama for what he described as an overreliance on executive orders to accomplish policy goals that had been blocked by Congress, but in acting unilaterally, Mr. Trump was vastly expanding the use of such measures.
Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff and a vicious critic of Mr. Obama’s actions while a North Carolina congressman, was among those who recommended that Mr. Trump issue the orders, even as he conceded that an agreement with lawmakers would be more potent for the American economy.
“This is not a perfect answer — we’ll be the first ones to say that,” Mr. Meadows said on Friday, after he and Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, emerged from another meeting with congressional Democrats with no deal. “But it is all that we can do and all the president can do within the confines of his executive power and we’re going to encourage him to do it.”
While most Democrats slammed the legality of the executive actions, few Republicans publicly criticized the maneuver. One notable exception was Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, who declared, “The pen-and-phone theory of executive lawmaking is unconstitutional slop.”
Mr. Trump had told reporters on Friday evening that he would probably sign executive orders to provide economic relief next week if no compromise could be reached with Democrats, but by Saturday morning, officials were already drafting them and planning an afternoon news conference.
After signing the measures, Mr. Trump handed out the black Sharpies he had used, embossed with his name, to members of his golf club standing at the back of the room.
The Labor Department reported on Friday that the economy created 1.8 million jobs in July, a sharp slowdown from May and June, and economic forecasters expect further slowing in August. Many economists have noted that the $600 supplemental unemployment benefits, which expired at the end of July, had been propping up consumer spending at a time when about 30 million Americans are unemployed.
Mr. Trump’s memorandum seeking to repurpose other money to cover lost wages is unlikely to deliver additional cash to laid-off workers any time soon. And while some of Mr. Trump’s outside advisers, including the conservative economists Arthur B. Laffer and Stephen Moore, have urged him to suspend payroll tax collections, other economists say the move is unlikely to bolster workers’ paychecks because it is only a delay in tax liability. Many companies are likely to continue withholding the taxes in order to remit them next year on workers’ behalf, they say.
It is an idea that Republican lawmakers have also resisted.
“They don’t make that much difference,” Ms. Pelosi told members of the Democratic caucus on a private call Saturday afternoon, according to three people familiar with her remarks. She questioned whether Mr. Trump genuinely wanted to reach an agreement, telling lawmakers that the president cared about the markets and having his “name on the letter when those direct payments go out.”