- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 6, 2020

President Trump’s pen is turning out to be pretty hefty.

Critics complained vigorously and predicted a flood of lawsuits when Mr. Trump flexed his executive powers to order an extension of unemployment benefits and other pandemic assistance. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, called the executive orders “absurdly unconstitutional.”

Yet nearly a month later, Mrs. Pelosi, who has sued over myriad other Trump policies, has not filed a coronavirus lawsuit. Neither have other major Trump opponents.

Instead, governors rushed to sign up for the unemployment benefits, and Democrats were among the most enthusiastic.

In addition to the unemployment boost, Mr. Trump on Aug. 8 issued directives attempting to suspend evictions, to delay student loan repayments and to grant a payroll tax deferral. Those plans have taken longer to materialize, but the president’s moves did fill the gap left by Capitol Hill, which has been gridlocked for months over provisions in another round of coronavirus assistance.

Congress returns this week from a summer vacation, and lawmakers have insisted that they will step up to tackle the big issues.

The federal government needs new funding by Sept. 30 or will have to shut down, and all sides are eyeing another round of coronavirus relief.

House Democrats have powered through a $3 trillion package with another round of unemployment benefits and a massive infusion of cash for state and local governments. Senate Republicans are looking for a vote on a much slimmer package, perhaps $1 trillion, with a smaller unemployment benefit and a new round of assistance for businesses.

Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin said Sunday that the administration and Mrs. Pelosi have agreed to government funding at least through Election Day on Nov. 3.

“We haven’t agreed on the specific details, but my expectation would be [the funding will last] through the beginning of December. That’s what we did this year,” Mr. Mnuchin told Fox. “For now, the most important thing is that at the end of the month we don’t shut down the government and we get something past the election.”

But he signaled that coronavirus relief negotiations are tougher.

“Where we’re really stuck is both on certain policy issues but more importantly on the top line,” Mr. Mnuchin told Fox. “The speaker has refused to sit down and negotiate unless we agree to something like a 2½ trillion-dollar deal in advance. … Let’s do a more targeted bill now. If we need to do more in 30 days, we’ll continue to do more.”

Mr. Mnuchin also took a victory lap for Friday’s job numbers, which showed that the economy added 1.4 million jobs in August and that the unemployment rate fell to 8.4%.

Those numbers are far better than economists predicted just a few months ago, when the Congressional Budget Office, the government’s chief scorekeeper, said the unemployment rate would be above 10% for another year.

But the trade-off is perhaps tens of thousands more lives lost because of a reopened economy.

Mr. Trump is pushing for a still faster recovery.

A centerpiece of his executive actions last month was a payroll tax deferral. Mr. Trump directed the Treasury Department to grant a delay on taxes due so workers don’t have to have payroll taxes deducted from their checks for the rest of this year.

But under the law, they would still owe the amount, likely in a lump sum next year.

Mr. Trump has insisted that if he wins reelection, he will fight to waive the repayment and turn the payroll tax holiday into a tax cut.

The hiccup for Mr. Trump is that payroll taxes are deducted from paychecks, and the money goes to fund Social Security. That means businesses must agree to change their accounting for workers to see the money now.

Democrats also claim, wrongly, that the holiday undermines Social Security’s finances. In fact, since the money is still owed, the program’s underpinning remains solid, though that could change if Mr. Trump makes the holiday permanent.

In an effort to kick-start the process, the administration has said it will impose the holiday for federal workers.

The American Federation of Government Employees last week demanded that federal workers be given a choice and said Mr. Trump’s deferral scheme “has the makings of a fiasco.”

The student loan payment delay is the most straightforward of the four policies Mr. Trump announced in early August. It continues a policy put into place during the coronavirus crisis to grant a reprieve on repaying loans.

Mr. Trump’s eviction moratorium could face a lawsuit. Landlords have sued some states that imposed bans on evictions, and they are reportedly pondering whether to take on Mr. Trump.

Mr. Trump’s extra unemployment benefits, which some analysts deem the most legally suspect, have also proved the most popular.

As of late last week 46 governors had been granted unemployment checks of $300 or $400 a week per worker on top of what states were paying. Among them are prominent Trump critics including California Gov. Gavin Newsom, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown.

The money was paid as a lost wages grant through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Congress, in one of its early coronavirus packages, granted a $600-a-week plus-up. As businesses started to reopen, some workers refused to go back because they were making more money from unemployment benefits.

One Democratic aide called the president’s moves “fake orders.”

“Terrible leadership from the worst deal-maker in the history of the presidency,” said the aide.

Rep. Ann Kuster of New Hampshire, vice chair of the New Democrat Coalition, said there is still a need for a big package from Capitol Hill.

“Many of the measures from the president’s executive orders in August have yet to kick in, and unfortunately provided little certainty to American renters who are facing evictions because it did not ban evictions,” she said. “Democrats and Republicans need to work together to provide meaningful and lasting relief for Americans who have been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

• Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

• Ryan Lovelace can be reached at rlovelace@washingtontimes.com.

• Gabriella Muñoz can be reached at gmunoz@washingtontimes.com.

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