On Saturday, President Donald Trump followed through on his threat to take executive action on unemployment, evictions, and the payroll tax. So what has Trump actually done? And more importantly, do these executive actions even help anyone?
Don’t count on Trump’s memorandum to deliver UI or PUA income.
States can only pay benefits authorized under federal law. In theory, they could set up a whole parallel payment system outside of UI, but I don't know how states could do that. States are usually given a couple of years to conform to something of that magnitude. 2/
— Michele Evermore (@EvermoreMichele) August 8, 2020
On Saturday, Donald Trump signed four documents at his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club. The one that’s attracted the most attention is the memorandum pertaining to the CARES Act unemployment insurance (UI) expansion that expired last month. Trump now promises that his four documents “will take care of pretty much this entire situation,” but the reality of this is far messier than Trump’s rhetoric suggests.
For one, it’s flagrantly unconstitutional. Congress has the authority to tax and appropriate, yet Trump is trying to unilaterally delay payroll tax collection and create an entirely new UI system. Trump’s action also forces states to restart from scratch in developing the infrastructure to deliver the benefits, and he’s forcing states to contribute $100 towards the $400 weekly benefit. It’s also unclear who exactly qualifies for benefits, as the language in the memorandum seems to exclude tip workers and the PUA-eligible self-employed. And on top of all that, Trump wants to take $44 billion from FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund during what promises to be a very active hurricane season to fund, at the very most, six weeks of weekly $300 UI payments.
Again, Trump wants to force states to contribute $100 towards the weekly UI payments while also spending time and money to develop a totally new system, since they can’t legally use the traditional UI or PUA systems to administer this. As the Nevada Current’s Hugh Jackson notes, Nevada can’t afford to set up a new unemployment system. (Remember, the Legislature just cut the state’s budget last month!) And as we noticed during Governor Steve Sisolak’s (D) announcement of a new UI “strike force” operation, the state’s still struggling to catch up to COVID-19 era higher demand for UI income. While many in the national media were again bamboozled by Trump’s “weapons of mass distraction”, his actions are far from guaranteed to deliver any relief for the 32 million Americans in need of a real solution.
So what is Trump actually doing?
When it comes to Trump’s supposed “order” on housing, it’s on more solid legal footing, but it may be even less likely to do anything than the unemployment “order” since it essentially asks federal agencies to think about what they might possibly do going forward. That’s it. At this point, distressed renters stand a far better chance of getting help from state courts (since Sisolak and the Legislature agreed on SB 1 during this month’s special session) via alternative dispute resolution than they will ever get from the Trump administration.
Hopping back to the federal payroll tax, Trump aims to delay collection through the end of the year and repeal it entirely if he wins reelection this fall. Keep in mind that the payroll tax funds Social Security (mostly) and Medicare (to an extent), so Trump is breaking his promise to “protect” Social Security and Medicare by cutting off their funding stream. Yet if Trump loses reelection, workers and employers will remain on the hook to repay the deferred tax bill.
And finally, we have student loans. All Trump ordered here is a broad forbearance on federally backed student loans through December 31, not any kind of loan forgiveness or even any relief for privately offered student loans. Like (actually functional) UI income and payroll tax adjustment, those would require acts of Congress.
Who is Trump really helping?
— Sarah Kendzior (@sarahkendzior) August 8, 2020
Congress *must* revisit both the National Emergencies Act and IEEPA. The president’s abuse of emergency powers has itself become an emergency, and if Congress does not act soon, the situation will only get worse. 15/15
— Elizabeth Goitein (@LizaGoitein) June 11, 2020
Back in February 2019, following Trump’s “emergency declaration” to redirect Pentagon money to fund his long-desired border wall, I wrote, “This actually amounts to Trump taking the constitutional crisis he’s already plunged the nation into and advancing it to the next level by usurping the budget authority that the Constitution explicitly gives to Congress, then directing the Pentagon to build something that doesn’t address any real national security emergency.”
Many more executive actions and an impeachment later, my assessment still stands. Not only do Trump’s actions to little to nothing to help anyone but himself, and not only do Trump’s documents do nothing to address critical needs like testing and contact tracing capacity and funding for state and local governments, but his actions only further his terrifying precedent of usurping Congress’ powers for himself and undermining the separation of powers doctrine that’s supposed to protect our democracy.
So really, Donald Trump is helping no one but himself with his executive actions. It’s far from guaranteed that any unemployment aid or housing aid will result from them, but it’s certainly guaranteed that he will continue to test the limits of Americans’ willingness to accept authoritarianism until we either submit to his demands or reject his undemocratic flouting of constitutional law.