A flurry of executive actions from the president aim to provide pandemic relief to millions of cash-trapped Americans. But how effective will they be and how likely are they to face legal challenges?
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
President Trump signed a series of executive actions yesterday at his golf resort in New Jersey. There’s one about evictions, one to defer student loan repayments, an extension of federal unemployment benefits and what Trump is calling a payroll tax holiday. But can he really do all that? Is it legal? After all, Congress holds the power of the purse. Joining us is NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Good morning.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. So let’s start with those enhanced unemployment benefits being extended. I mean, a lot of people are relying on this. Where is the money coming from?
KEITH: Yeah. So the president doesn’t have the power to just extend the $600 a week enhanced benefit that expired at the end of last month. Also, he thinks $600 is too much. So with this memorandum, he’s trying to shoehorn the payments in as disaster relief. He is directing FEMA to use funds set aside for hurricanes and other disaster relief. That would cover about $300 a week.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That seems a little problematic considering that it is hurricane season. But continue.
KEITH: Yeah, so Congress did set aside an extra $45 billion for that disaster relief fund in one of its earlier coronavirus relief packages. But there’s a catch here. In order for someone who is out of work to get this money, each individual state will have to request it, and they’ll have to put an additional $100 a week in so that people would get 400 a week. They’d also have to administer the program. And states have their own very serious fiscal problems brought on by the pandemic. They are begging Congress and the president to help with that.
And this is just a stopgap. Given the current number of Americans unemployed, those FEMA disaster funds would only last about five weeks. This is not a substitute for legislation. It’s really just moving money from one pot to another.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. This payroll tax holiday, though, for those earning less than $100,000 a year – this is something that the president has mentioned a lot, but it has not been popular with his own party.
KEITH: Right. He has raised it many times, and every time he tried to get it into congressional coronavirus relief bills, Republicans quietly made it go away – or, at least they never fought for it – and Democrats don’t like it, either. These taxes fund Medicare and Social Security.
Also, the way the president has done this, the taxes aren’t going away. They’ll still be due at the end. So this is really just a temporary deferral of paying of taxes from September through the end of the year. But the money will still be due at the end. President Trump then teased that if he’s reelected, he could just make this permanent. Here’s what he said yesterday.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: If I’m victorious on November 3, I plan to forgive these taxes and make permanent cuts to the payroll tax. I’m going to make them all permanent. Now, Joe Biden and the Democrats may not want that. They don’t want that because they’re adding $3 trillion in taxes. So they’ll have the option of raising everybody’s taxes and taking this away.
KEITH: That was a very explicitly political appeal about his reelection. And he was doing this at his golf club, and there were club members in the back sort of cheering him on and jeering the press. But I’ve got to say the president can’t make this promise. The president cannot just forgive taxes. That requires congressional action. And it’s not clear that Congress is going to be eager to take money away from Medicare and Social Security when there are already concerns about the long-term solvency of those very popular social safety net programs.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what does this all mean for Americans who are struggling and wondering when their next relief payment might come?
KEITH: They should keep an eye on Congress. These executive actions are, in some ways, a lot less than meets the eye. The president is not able to put a moratorium on evictions. He’s directing agency heads to look into ways to help people avoid eviction. The payroll tax holiday would have a balloon payment at the end, potentially. The unemployment insurance is not truly an extension and could have a lot of problems.
Plus, there are so many things that are not addressed by this, like funding needed to reopen schools safely or fund local governments who are in the red because the pandemic has cut state revenues so badly.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You’ve mentioned that this really may not have the effect that people hope. Is it legal, though? And what has been the reaction?
KEITH: Yeah, so the president can try to do these things. Experts I’ve spoken to say that there will certainly be legal challenges. But the White House can make a case that he can do this. But he can’t actually do what he said he did. He’s doing sort of less than. The reaction has been that Republicans don’t love it, but they’re saying that he was sort of forced to do it. That was the message from Mitch McConnell. And Democrats were, as you might expect, not thrilled, either. They characterized it as a Band-Aid at best and, at worst, illegal or unconstitutional.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And that’s white House correspondent Tamara Keith. Thanks so much.
KEITH: You’re welcome.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.