NEW YORK – United States President Donald Trump announced on Saturday a quartet of executive orders intended to extend COVID-19 relief measures that expired amid a failure of Republicans and Democrats in Congress to agree on how best to address the economic damage from the pandemic.
The president detailed the orders in a press conference at his Trump National Golf Club property in Bedminster, New Jersey.
As negotiations between the White House and the Democratic congressional leadership on a new coronavirus response package reached an impasse, Trump signaled his readiness to extend some benefits via executive order, though the legality of that approach is questionable.
Trump began by proclaiming an extension of the additional federal unemployment benefits that Congress approved in March as part of the CARES Act, but with two major changes: the top-up payments are to be reduced from $600 a week to $400 and the 50 state governments will be expected to meet 25 percent of the cost.
While the president said that states could use federal funds appropriated in the $2.2 trillion CARES Act to cover the additional jobless benefits, many state governments are already in financial straits due to sharp declines in tax revenue because of the pandemic.
Democrats want the benefits to continue at $600 a week, while some of Trump’s fellow Republicans in Congress insist the extra payment should be slashed to $200.
In response to a question on why he decided on $400 a week, the president said that reducing the benefit gives people “a great incentive to go back to work.”
Regarding the possibility of court challenges to the executive orders, Trump said: “If we get sued, it’s somebody that doesn’t want people to get money. And that’s not going to be a very popular thing.”
Under the US Constitution, only Congress has the authority to appropriate public money.
Two other orders Trump announced on Saturday, one extending a moratorium on evictions and the other giving people with federal student loans the option to defer payments without penalty, seem unlikely to be controversial.
But the fourth element of the program is almost certain to spur a battle, as it advances an idea rejected not only by Democrats but by many Republicans as well.
Trump declared a deferral until Jan. 1 of payroll tax paid by workers making less than $100,000 a year. The 7 percent levy on employees – along with a matching tax on their employers – funds Social Security and Medicare.
The president has long advocated reducing the payroll tax, but defenders of Social Security and Medicare see such a move as a way to undermine those programs and some Republicans are wary of the potential effects on the budget.
Economists are also skeptical about the potential for the cut to stimulate spending given that it will not benefit the tens of millions of Americans who are unemployed.