Tuesday, September 22, 2020
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Administration Officials Defend Executive Action on Pandemic Relief

Administration Officials Defend Executive Action on Pandemic Relief
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WASHINGTON — Facing sharp criticism, administration officials on Sunday struggled to explain the executive actions President Trump used to circumvent Congress in the absence of an agreement on a coronavirus aid package, even as they defended him and insisted that Americans would receive the relief he promised.

The president’s decision on Saturday to sign a series of measures intended to revive unemployment benefits, address an eviction ban, provide relief for student borrowers and suspend collection of payroll taxes came after crucial benefits lapsed and two weeks of talks between congressional Democrats and administration officials failed to produce an agreement on a broader relief package.

But the patchwork of moves was less significant than what Mr. Trump described in his news conference, and the plan appeared unlikely to have immediate, meaningful impact on the sputtering economy, leaving questions about how it would affect the continuing face-off with Democrats, whose votes are needed for a congressional deal.

Democrats swiftly criticized Mr. Trump’s actions as an example of executive overreach, saying the measures offered thin support for struggling Americans and warning that the nation’s social safety net could be jeopardized while the coronavirus pandemic continued to spread. After two weeks of huddling with Mr. Trump’s top advisers on Capitol Hill in an effort to hammer out a deal, Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, called for talks to resume.

“The president’s meager, weak and unconstitutional actions further demand that we have an agreement,” Ms. Pelosi said on “Fox News Sunday.” She rejected the suggestion that she had erred by holding out for Democratic priorities, telling the program’s anchor, Chris Wallace, that “clearly you don’t have an understanding of what is happening here.”

Mr. Schumer, speaking on ABC’s “This Week,” declared that “the president’s executive orders, described in one word, could be paltry, in three words, unworkable, weak and far too narrow.”

Mr. Trump’s top economic advisers were on the defensive on the Sunday talk shows as they tried to justify the president’s authority to bypass Congress, which retains the constitutional power of the purse, to redirect billions of dollars. They argued that Democrats, who first approved a $3.4 trillion stimulus package in May, were unwilling to compromise, particularly on sending additional aid to state and local governments.

Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, called on Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Schumer to consider a more narrow package that addressed the issues where there was agreement, saying that negotiators had resolved most provisions except for reviving unemployment benefits and distributing money to state and local governments. (Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Ms. Pelosi, disputed that characterization.)

“We don’t have to get everything done at once,” Mr. Mnuchin said on “Fox News Sunday.” “What we should do is get things done for the American public now, come back for another bill afterward.”

He insisted that White House lawyers approved the moves as legal and dared Democrats to take the White House to court to stop money from being released to jobless Americans.

“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,” Mr. Mnuchin said.

But there was some acknowledgment that the measures could face legal challenges and were not as potent as congressional action.

A number of critical provisions are also left unaddressed without a broader deal, including a lapsed federal program for small businesses, another round of stimulus checks, aid to schools confronting the beginning of the academic year and funds for state and local governments reeling from the toll of the pandemic.

“The downside of executive orders is you can’t address some of the small business incidents that are there,” Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, said in a pretaped interview that aired Sunday on Gray Television. “You can’t necessarily get direct payments, because it has to do with appropriations. That’s something that the president doesn’t have the ability to do. So you miss on those two key areas. You miss on money for schools. You miss on any funding for state and local revenue needs that may be out there.”

Among the most complicated measures is the president’s intention to revive lapsed weekly federal unemployment payments of $600 through the repurposing of other federal funds, including from a pot of disaster relief aid, to create a $400-a-week bonus payment. That payment, however, is contingent on states providing $100 per week and establishing an entirely new program — called a “lost wages assistance program” — to distribute the aid.

But states are also facing plunging revenues because of the pandemic. They have already struggled to allocate the original $600 payment because of overwhelmed and often antiquated systems, and some experts warn that the revised benefit could last for only five weeks.

Mr. Trump went golfing on Saturday with Sen. Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, who had tried to nudge the president toward higher weekly subsidies to supplant lost income. Mr. Trump joked that they would simply have to run the printing presses faster to make up the additional amount it would cost, a person familiar with the discussion said.

Larry Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council, argued that states would be able to support the demand for $100 a week given that billions of dollars allocated in the $2.2 trillion stimulus law in March had not yet been spent. But when pressed during an interview on CNN, he acknowledged that it remained unclear how much states would be able to provide toward the unemployment benefit and when those benefits would be distributed.

“We’ll probably find that out today and tomorrow,” Mr. Kudlow said, repeatedly offering conflicting amounts about how much relief would be made available to the average American. And while Mr. Mnuchin said on Sunday that states could waive the $100 fee and payments could start “immediately,” Mr. Kudlow said the payments could take a few weeks.

On CNN’s “State of the Union,” Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio, a Republican, said he was studying whether his state government could afford to pay an extra $100 a week for unemployment insurance as required by Mr. Trump’s latest order.

“The answer is, ‘I don’t know,’” Mr. DeWine said.

The governor said he thanked the president for the order, but he urged Congress to reach a deal that would provide a much bolder relief package, saying that “they really need to do it. They need to pull together.”

The effect the moves will have on the economy appears to be meager compared with the broader package that was under discussion, and it comes as job growth is already showing signs of slowing. The need for additional fiscal support from the government is clear, economists say, despite the fact that Democrats and Republicans are divided on how much money is needed and where to deploy it.

Charles Evans, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, said that it was crucial for the government to provide additional support to help workers and businesses make it through the pandemic-spurred economic slump.

“Fiscal policy has been unbelievably important in supporting the economy during the downturn that we’ve been experiencing,” Mr. Evans said on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” noting that the virus was not under control. “Another support package is really incredibly important.”

He suggested that it could be especially bad for the economy if lawmakers did not help state and local governments, many of which have balanced budget requirements and will otherwise be forced to cut workers.

Mr. Trump’s move to curb evictions also remains murky, given that his directive does not outright ban them but instead would require agency leaders to review the necessity of such a moratorium and examine whether additional federal funds were available to provide rental assistance.

It also remains unclear whether Mr. Trump’s decision to suspend the payroll tax through December, deferring payments, would have any immediate effect. His push to suspend the tax has faced significant objections from both parties, with Senate Republicans ultimately leaving out the proposal altogether in the $1 trillion legislation they unveiled late last month.

Many companies are likely to decline to stop withholding money for payroll taxes since it is uncertain that they will ever be waived. But Mr. Mnuchin rejected suggestions from Democrats that deferring payroll taxes would lead to cuts in Social Security or Medicare benefits. The money that supports those programs would be backstopped by a transfer from the Treasury general fund, he said.

Still, he acknowledged that the payroll taxes would eventually have to be repaid unless Mr. Trump could reach a deal on legislation that would allow them to be waived or forgiven — an unlikely scenario — and that the deficit would continue to swell.

“We’ll deal with the budget deficit when we get the economy back to where it was before,” Mr. Mnuchin said.

Democrats have charged that Mr. Trump’s plans to cut or forgive delayed payments of the payroll tax, which funds Social Security and Medicare, could endanger the long-term health of those programs. By depriving the government of payroll tax funds, the move could mean Mr. Trump’s order contradicts his repeated pledge to leave Social Security untouched — which prompted harsh criticism from former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the presumptive Democratic nominee.

“Unable to deliver for the American people in a time of crisis, Donald Trump offered a series of half-baked measures today,” Mr. Biden said in a statement on Saturday. “He is putting Social Security at grave risk at a time when seniors are suffering the overwhelming impact of a pandemic he has failed to get under control. And make no mistake: Donald Trump said today that if he is re-elected, he will defund Social Security.”

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a research organization, estimated that Mr. Trump’s orders would provide about $225 billion of near-term funds with a net cost of $10 billion to $15 billion without additional policy changes.

The president’s top aides also strained to defend his sweeping use of executive authority, which Mr. Trump derided when used by his predecessor, President Barack Obama.

Peter Navarro, Mr. Trump’s trade adviser, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that Congress left the president with no choice but to resort to executive orders and memorandum. He assailed Ms. Pelosi for demonizing Republicans during the negotiations and said the president was right to use his executive authority.

“The Lord and the Founding Fathers created executive orders because of partisan bickering and divided government,” Mr. Navarro said.

Maggie Haberman and Jeanna Smialek contributed reporting.



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