WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Saturday signed several executive orders that he said would provide economic relief to millions of Americans, moving forward after talks with Democrats faltered.
One of the executive orders would aim to provide $400 in weekly unemployment aid for millions of Americans whose $600 in weekly benefits expired last month. But some of this money would be required to be paid by states, many of which are already dealing with major budget shortfalls and have pleaded with Congress for more aid.
Two of the other executive orders would relate to eviction protections and student loan relief.
And the fourth executive order would seek to defer payroll tax payments from August 1 — retroactively — through December for people who earn less than $100,000. He said if he wins reelection he would seek to extend the deferral and somehow “terminate” the tax. The tax funds Social Security and Medicare benefits, and it’s unclear what will happen to those programs without the money.
The first three issues had been the subject of talks with congressional Democrats, which faltered on Friday. The payroll tax initiative is one Trump has sought for more than a year with little congressional support.
Trump signed the orders during a press event in Bedminster, New Jersey. On Friday, Trump acknowledged that the executive orders could be controversial and prompt lawsuits. Democrats on Friday signaled they were still holding out hopes that talks with the White House could be revived.
Trump signed the orders two weeks after key parts of the $2 trillion Cares Act expired. The law passed in March with bipartisan support but the White House and Democrats were unable to reach agreement on legislation to deal with expiring provisions.
The Cares Act provided enhanced weekly unemployment benefits of $600 through July, as well as temporary eviction protections, which also expired in July.
Some experts have expressed confusion over the legality of a plan to unilaterally extend federal unemployment benefits. White House officials have studied using leftover money approved by Congress for use by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But it is unclear if the administration can repurpose those funds for unemployment benefits without violating the Antideficiency Act, a federal budgeting law.
“States cannot pay unemployment insurance benefits in a way that has not been authorized by Congress through enactment of legislation,” said Michele Evermore, an unemployment insurance expert at the National Employment Law Project. “By definition, states’ administration of unemployment insurance must conform to federal law — and there is no federal law on the books allowing for an additional sum.”
The executive orders also amount to at least a partial about face from Trump’s promises as a presidential candidate, when he panned executive orders. “We don’t want to continue to watch people signing executive orders because that was not what the Constitution and the brilliant designers of this incredible document had in mind,” Trump said in March 2016. “We need people that can make deals.”
House Democrats passed a $3.4 trillion bill in May that would have extended the $600 unemployment benefit through January, but the White House and Senate Republicans sought to change the formula for these benefits so that — in many cases — the benefit came to around $200 a week. They eventually changed their offer and told Democrats they would agree to around $400 a week in benefits. But those talks collapsed in part because of a broader disagreement about aid to states.
The unemployment rate in February was 3.5 percent, near historic lows, but it jumped to more than 14 percent in April when large parts of the country shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic. The unemployment rate in July was 10.2 percent, but more than 30 million Americans are still collecting jobless aid and many parts of the economy remain dislocated.
The White House and Congress approved roughly $3 trillion in emergency spending and tax cuts earlier this year in response to the coronavirus pandemic, but many Republicans have signaled in recent weeks that they are not comfortable with more spending.
The White House and Senate Republicans didn’t act for several months after the House Democrats passed their bill. Then, a few weeks ago, the White House and some Senate Republicans finally made their counteroffer — a $1 trillion measure that would offer another round of stimulus checks, more money for small businesses, schools, and a lower level of enhanced unemployment aid, among other things.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said last week Democrats had offered to lower their offer by $1 trillion, but Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said a $2 trillion package was still too large.