Democrats on Sunday slammed President Trump’s executive actions aimed at providing economic relief during the coronavirus pandemic, saying the measures are both ineffective and unconstitutional.
Trump signed three memoranda and one executive order at his Bedminster, N.J., golf resort on Saturday amid stalled negotiations with Congress over a new COVID-19 relief package.
The measures would extend some federal unemployment benefits, continue the suspension of student loan repayment, defer payroll tax collection for many workers, and task federal officials with reviewing “resources that may be used to prevent evictions and foreclosures.”
Some lawmakers and experts are voicing concerns about the president’s moves to control federal spending, which is a power reserved for Congress.
Andrew Rudalevige, chair of the Department of Government and Legal Studies at Bowdoin College, told NPR on Saturday that the unemployment benefits measure is particularly controversial because it is “really using appropriated funds by Congress in ways that Congress might not have intended.”
Trump calls for using billions of unused dollars from the Department of Homeland Security’s Disaster Relief Fund for the unemployment payments.
Rudalevige added that he expects legal challenges to move “fairly rapidly,” citing the specific measures regarding unemployment appropriations and the payroll tax, which funds Social Security and Medicare.
“The president can defer the payroll tax, but he can’t forgive it,” Rudalevige said. “He talked about terminating the tax [if he wins reelection], but that would certainly require a law to do that. So I think you will see pushback here.”
Pushback from lawmakers was swift, and mounted over the weekend. Mostly it came from Democrats, but from some conservatives too.
“Our Constitution doesn’t authorize the president to act as king whenever Congress doesn’t legislate,” said Libertarian-leaning Michigan Congressman Justin Amash, who left the Republican Party last year to become an independent.
Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska wrote in a statement that Trump does not have the power to “unilaterally rewrite the payroll tax law.”
“The pen-and-phone theory of executive lawmaking is unconstitutional slop,” he said.
But several members of the Trump administration defended the president’s actions on Sunday.
White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow responded to Sasse’s comments about the payroll tax deferral on ABC’s This Week. “I appreciate those things, maybe we’re going to go to court on them,” Kudlow said. “We’re going to go ahead with our actions anyway. Our counsel’s office, the Treasury Department believes it has the authority to temporarily suspend tax collections, so we’re banking on that.”
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said all of the actions cleared the administration’s Office of Legal Counsel. He warned against potential challengers.
“If Democrats want to challenge us in court and hold up unemployment benefits to those hard-working Americans that are out of a job because of COVID, they’re going to have a lot of explaining to do,” Mnuchin said on Fox News Sunday.
Rudalevige told NPR that it is “conceivable” that Congress itself could have standing to sue over the question of unemployment appropriations, and noted that the House sued then-President Barack Obama over spending on the Affordable Care Act.
In an appearance on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called Trump’s executive actions unconstitutional but sidestepped a question about whether she would sue to block them.
“My constitutional advisers tell me they’re absurdly unconstitutional, and that’s a parallel thing,” Pelosi said. “Right now the focus, the priority, has to be on … meeting the needs of the American people.”
In response to a question about whether a future stimulus package would make the executive actions null and void, White House trade adviser Peter Navarro told NBC’s Meet the Press that there would be no need for the president to act if Congress could come to an agreement.
“The Lord and the Founding Fathers created executive orders because of partisan bickering and divided government,” he said.
Several GOP lawmakers, including Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, praised the president for taking action but said they would prefer a congressional agreement, with Alexander calling on Democrats to “stop blocking commonsense proposals.”
Democratic leaders also called for a return to negotiations, saying the president’s measures fall short.
In a joint statement issued Saturday evening, Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called the executive actions “unworkable, weak and narrow.”
They said the measures will cut families’ unemployment benefits from the recently expired $600-a-week benefits, exacerbate states’ budget crises, and endanger seniors’ Social Security and Medicare. And they said Trump’s actions ignore important issues like increasing testing, reopening schools and safeguarding elections.
The leaders urged Republicans to “return to the table, meet us halfway and work together to deliver immediate relief to the American people.”
Talks on Capitol Hill to reach a new COVID-19 relief bill have stalled, with Republicans and Democrats still trillions of dollars apart after weeks of negotiations.
Schumer said on ABC’s This Week that Democrats had been willing to compromise on their $3.4 trillion bill, with Pelosi suggesting to White House negotiators that Democrats go down $1 trillion and Republicans go up $1 trillion.
“They said absolutely not,” Schumer said. “I said to them, ‘This means it’s your way or the highway?’ And they basically said yes. That is not the way to create a deal.”
Both Schumer and Pelosi reiterated on Sunday that they hope talks will resume.
Mnuchin told Fox that Democrats refuse to negotiate on state and local aid and enhanced unemployment benefits, but that on almost every other issue “we’ve come to an agreement.”