President Trump signed four executive orders for COVID-19 relief but American’s won’t see benefits without congressional approval.
President Donald Trump signed four executive orders Saturday intended to help Americans struggling financially as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, but Democrats, and some Republicans, have questioned the constitutionality of Trump’s actions and whether they will deliver timely relief to those in need.
The measures – which Trump argued were necessary after Congress failed to strike a deal on a new stimulus package – were intended to provide an additional $400 in weekly unemployment benefits to replace the expired $600 a week Congress had approved, suspend some student loan payments, protect some renters from eviction, and defer payroll taxes.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Democrats had forced Trump’s hand and he was “glad the president stepped in.”
But most Democrats agreed with Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, who called the orders “constitutional slop,” – a line which drew a rebuke from the president. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called the Trump’s orders “illusions” that don’t “even accomplish what he sets out to do.”
Critics say some of the Trump executive actions may take too much time to implement, could be vulnerable to legal challenges and may not yield the results promised.
Here are some questions that remain unanswered after Trump’s signing of his executive orders.
Are they legal?
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said all four of the president’s executive orders were vetted by the Office of Legal Counsel and he suggested that challenging them in court could be legally poisonous for Democrat because it would delay much-needed benefits.
“If the Democrats want to challenge us in court and hold up unemployment benefits to those hardworking Americans that are out of a job because of COVID, they’re going to have a lot of explaining to do,” Mnuchin told “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace.
Pelosi told CNN the orders were “absurdly unconstitutional” but demurred when asked if she planned to try and stop them in court.
“Well, the fact is, is that whether they’re legal or not takes time to figure out,” she said Sunday on “State of the Union.” Pelosi called the legal questions surrounding the orders a “parallel” concern to Congress reaching an agreement on a more complete relief package.
When asked about the constitutionality of Trump’s orders on ABC News’ “This Week,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said, “I will leave that up to the attorneys.”
Jonathan Turley – a law professor at George Washington University who argued against Trump’s impeachment before the House Judiciary Committee and a USA TODAY contributor – said Trump’s action was “dubious at best” and “openly circumventing Congress in areas that are left expressly to Congress in the Constitution, specifically that Congress was given control over taxation.”
On the other hand, Josh Blackman, a law professor at the South Texas College of Law in Houston, saw “no inkling anyone will challenge” Trump’s actions and did not see “any argument that it’s illegal.”
Turley compared the payroll tax deferral to President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which indefinitely delayed the deportation of immigrants who came to the U.S. as children.
“Just as Obama ordered deferred enforcement under immigration law, Trump is declaring deferral under tax laws. The executive overreach is the same,” Turley said.
But Blackman says the law explicitly allows for the president to delay the collection of taxes for up to a year. For that reason, any challenge to the order on payroll taxes was certain for defeat, unless they continued to be deferred past the 12-month window.
“That’s the code so there’s really nothing too controversial there,” Blackman said.
The two experts also differed on whether Trump was justified in using the Stafford Act to fund the $400 “assistance program for lost wages.” Turley said the act clearly is designed to provide relief in the case of natural disasters such as hurricanes and fires and thought that made this order the most vulnerable to legal challenges.
“That could lead to a categorical challenge as to the use of such funds. Treating COVID like a hurricane is a quantum legal shift that many courts could question,” he said.
“It doesn’t matter that it’s a biological disaster instead of a hurricane or something,” Blackman argued. He said the “definition of a disaster is very broad” and Congress gave the president the authority to approve the funds in an emergency, which Trump declared the pandemic to be in March.
“No one objected when President Trump declared COVID a disaster a few months ago, which triggered other federal aid,” Blackman said. “Once you make this declaration. It basically opens the floodgates.”
“Congress gave the president the keys and now he’s going to go for a joyride,” Blackman said.
Neither Turley nor Blackman thought Trump’s actions on student loans or housing were subject to legal challenges, particularly the latter because it outlines policy goals more than directing agencies to act.
‘Unconstitutional slop’: Donald Trump spars with Ben Sasse, the GOP senator who attacked his executive order
When could people expect to collect the $400 unemployment benefit?
The $400 in Trump’s lost wage assistance order is in addition to the unemployment benefits that eligible claimants receive from the state. That is $200 less than the supplemental unemployment benefit approved by Congress last spring. That benefit expired at the end of July.
The $400 in enhanced benefits that Trump is ordering would be effective for the unemployment week ending Aug. 1 and would continue through Dec. 27.
But how soon the benefits might start arriving remains unclear. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Monday the administration cannot provide a timeline for delivery of the benefits and that much of that will depend on the various states.
The reason: Trump’s order requires states to pay $100 of those $400 in weekly benefits. But some governors already are questioning whether states could afford to pick up the extra cost. The coronavirus pandemic has triggered a severe budget crisis for many states, with state budget shortfalls projected to hit 20% in the current fiscal year, according to the nonpartisan Center on Budget Policy and Priorities.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, called the suggestion that states pay 25% of the unemployment benefit “just laughable.”
“The whole issue here was getting states funding, state and local funding,” Cuomo said. “You can’t now say to states who have no funding, you have to pay 25% of the unemployment insurance cost.”
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, also remained noncommittal when asked on CNN whether his state had the money to its share of the benefits. “We’re reviewing this now,” he said. “The answer is I don’t know yet.”
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, said Trump’s actions “do nothing to protect the millions of unemployed Americans who need to put food on the table for themselves and their families.”
“He cut federal funding for unemployed workers and is requiring states that are facing severe holes in our budgets to provide 25% of the funding,” she said.
At the Saturday news conference when he signed the orders, Trump was asked what would happen if states refuse to put up their share of the funding. “If they don’t, they don’t,” he said. “That’s up to them.”
But on Sunday, Trump suggested that states that can’t afford to participate could apply for a waiver.
“We have a system where we can do 100% or we can do 75%,” he told reporters before boarding Air Force One in New Jersey. “They’d pay 25. And it’ll depend on the state. And they’ll make an application, we’ll look at it, and we’ll make a decision. So it may be they’ll pay nothing in some instances.”
‘We have to reach an agreement’: Dems, White House open to deal on COVID-19 relief despite Trump’s orders
Will Trump’s order actually protect people from eviction?
Congress passed a federal moratorium last March to protect renters from being evicted if they live in buildings or houses with mortgages backed by the federal government.
That moratorium covered about a third of all renters, but it expired July 24, putting at risk the tenants of more than 12 million rental units nationwide if they miss payments.
One of the orders Trump signed on Saturday instructs the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to enable renters and homeowners to stay in their homes. HUD also will provide financial assistance to struggling renters and homeowners, Trump said.
But some experts question how effective that eviction order will be.
Some 30 million to 40 million renters are at risk of being evicted by the end of the year, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. But Trump’s order provided no details on how they would be protected, for how long or under what authority, said Diane Yentel, the organization’s president and chief executive officer.
Given the questions about Trump’s authority to establish an eviction moratorium, “his executive order offers merely false hope and risks increased confusion and chaos at a time when renters need assurance that they will not be kicked out of their homes during a pandemic,” Yentel said.
“Even if upheld in court, this executive order would be a half-measure,” she said. “And in many ways, it’s an empty shell: despite Trump declaring he would stop evictions, the EO (executive order) provides no clear directive for any entity to do so.”
The National Apartment Association said the president’s order does not extend the eviction mortarium passed earlier this year.
“The best way to keep renters stably housed and maintain the industry’s solvency during the COVID-19 pandemic is through direct and robust financial assistance,” the association said. “Any halt in evictions must be accompanied by this kind of relief. We’re encouraged that the Trump administration acknowledged this need in its executive orders, and we’re presently working with federal agencies to better understand their interpretation of the orders.”
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