Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Questions abound on Trump’s executive orders extending pandemic aid

By on August 10, 2020

(Screen capture of https://www.whitehouse.gov)

President’s announcement to give $400 a week to affected workers tries to bypass Congressional approval, will likely be challenged in court

SAN JUAN — Following President Trump’s bold announcement on Saturday to provide additional relief to millions of Americans affected by the coronavirus pandemic through four executive orders, several questions have arisen concerning the legality of such initiatives, the role that state governments would play, and even where the money would ultimately come from.

The move, which attempts to circumvent congressional approval, would ostensibly give up to $400 a week in unemployment assistance, down from the $600 a week that the federal government was providing on top of the state aid until the end of July. Since then, negotiations have remained at an impasse between White House officials and lawmakers regarding a second package of pandemic economic assistance.

During the announcement at Trump’s golf club in Bedminster, N.J., the president assured that the bonus payments would be “rapidly distributed… They’re going to see it very soon.” However, Trump’s own economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, acknowledged Sunday that several details remain to be hashed out, among them how much would each state government contribute, and that the move would likely face challenges in court, further deferring any payments to U.S. citizens.

It is also not yet clear how many people would benefit from the $400 weekly payments. The executive order—really a “memorandum” that carries less legal heft—leaves it up to the states to decide whether to participate in the program.

The order also asks states to contribute at least 25%, or $100, of the weekly payments, which would place an additional burden on their already strained budgets. “That would cost us about $500 million between now and the end of the year,” said Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat. The state has a population of close to 3.6 million, or a few hundred thousand more than Puerto Rico, which has a higher unemployment rate, leading to speculation that the territory may face a similar fiscal burden if the executive memo comes to pass.

Trump seemed to backtrack Sunday, however, saying that states could apply for the federal government to cover their share of the aid and that the decision on how much each state should contribute would be made on an individual basis.

Another point of controversy concerns the source of the federal funds. To bankroll the new package, Trump has called for $44 billion in funding from the Department of Homeland Security’s Disaster Relief Fund that is normally used for natural disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes and fires. This has raised concerns as to whether this may hamper the nation’s response to a future emergency, especially since meteorologists have predicted that the current hurricane season may prove more active than most.

A second executive memorandum seeks to defer the employee portion of the payroll tax from Aug. 1 for those making under $104,000 through the end of the year, while another memo attempts to do the same regarding student loans. However, the temporary deferral would not directly aid unemployed workers, and in both instances, principal payments would be due on Dec. 31, with full payments slated to restart Jan. 1, barring congressional action. Further complicating matters, payroll taxes help pay for Social Security and Medicare, critics have observed, which would place an additional strain on both programs.

A final executive order—the only one that can be properly classified as such—calls for Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield to “consider” whether a ban on evictions is needed nationwide. The U.S. rental market has been hit hard by the wave of layoffs in retail, restaurants and hospitality segments during the pandemic, leaving 30 million to 40 million renters at risk of being evicted in the coming months.

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