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Bullet policy · Aug 17, 2020

President Signs Executive Orders as COVID Relief Negotiations Collapse

After COVID relief negotiations between White House representatives and Democratic congressional leaders reached an impasse, President Trump signed a series of Executive Orders on August 8, 2020, the White House argued would restore lapsed benefits and address some of the pandemic’s economic impacts.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin began negotiations on the next coronavirus stimulus after Senate Republicans introduced a $1 trillion relief package on July 27. The House had passed a broader $3 trillion measure - the Heroes Act - in May. Talks broke down when an agreement could not be reached on unemployment benefits and additional state and local government aid. Trump said that he was open to future talks but in the meantime announced Executive Actions that he argued “will take care of, pretty much, this entire situation.”

The Executive Orders signed by President Trump aim to extend the enhanced unemployment benefits and eviction moratorium, to defer payroll tax payments from September through December for people earning less than $100,000, and to extend student loan payment relief. Some of the Executive actions are expected to face legal challenges. Setting aside the legality of the actions, many warn that the directives are too confused to implement.

Speaker Pelosi and Senator Schumer said the orders were legally questionable and do not address COVID-19 testing, funds to help schools reopen safely, or additional aid for states and local governments. They expressed disappointment at the “unworkable, weak and narrow policy announcements to slash the unemployment benefits that millions desperately need and endanger seniors’ Social Security and Medicare.”

One of the Executive orders would provide $400 in weekly enhanced unemployment aid, but calls on states to pay 25 percent of this funding. Many states are currently struggling with budget shortfalls as a result of the economic crisis, which makes it unlikely that these benefits will reach the unemployed. The federal contribution would be redirected from disaster relief funding at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Schumer said the plan was unworkable as “most states will take months to implement it, because it’s brand-new, it’s sort of put together with spit and paste. And many states, because they have to chip in $100 and they don’t have money, won’t do it.” Schumer also criticized the move to draw $44 billion from FEMA “when we’re at the height of hurricane season.”

The federal moratorium on evictions expired last month. Pelosi noted that Trump’s eviction order calls on the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to consider “whether any measures temporarily halting residential evictions of any tenants for failure to pay rent are reasonably necessary to prevent the further spread of COVID-19 from one State or possession into any other State or possession.” Pelosi criticized the order explaining, “While it has the illusion of saying, ‘We’re going to have a moratorium on evictions,’ it says, ‘I’m going to ask the folks in charge to study if that’s feasible’.”

Democratic and Republican lawmakers are calling for the White House to resume negotiations on a relief package. “Congress must act quickly,” said Senator Susan Collins (R-ME). “There are constitutional limits on what the president can do to help through executive orders.” She pointed to the Paycheck Protection Program, which “cannot be extended by executive order.” Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE) called the order to defer payroll taxes “unconstitutional,” arguing, “President Trump does not have the power to unilaterally rewrite the payroll tax law. Under the Constitution, that power belongs to the American people acting through their members of Congress.”

With the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) facing severe economic losses as a result of the pandemic, Democratic lawmakers have been pushing for $25 billion in funding for the USPS - an amount recommended by its board of governors. Democratic leaders have also proposed an additional $3.5 billion in supplemental funding to support elections during the ongoing pandemic. In May, a bipartisan group of Senators requested Congress provide emergency aid for USPS in the next stimulus package. President Trump suggested earlier that he was opposed to the USPS funding because it would help universal mail-in voting this fall. He alleged that mail-in ballots will lead to fraud, despite experts insisting otherwise. But later, on August 14, Trump said that he would approve funding for USPS as part of a relief package if Democrats capitulated on certain White House priorities.