Trump's Coronavirus Relief Orders Spur Confusion, Criticism
President Trump said the series of executive orders he signed on Saturday were intended to bypass stalled negotiations in Congress and deliver some economic relief to millions of Americans hurt by the coronavirus recession. Trump said the orders — which he called bills, a term for legislation considered by Congress — “will take care of, pretty much, this entire situation.”
That's clearly not the case. For one thing, one or more of the orders — a new federal unemployment benefit, a temporary deferral of payroll taxes, an eviction moratorium and student loan relief — could still face legal challenges. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) called them “absurdly unconstitutional,” though she and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) both stopped short of saying whether they would sue to block them.
Even leaving potential legal challenges aside, the effects of Trump’s actions were not as straightforward as the president made them out to be, casting doubt as to how much relief they might ultimately provide. CNN reports that “a close read of the actual text of executive actions [the president] signed Saturday suggests that even if they are deemed constitutional, they will not quickly deliver the aid Trump promised. They may not deliver much at all.”
Far less questionable is that the president’s unilateral actions — not bills, but three memoranda and an executive order — collectively represent another Trump administration challenge to the constitutional tax and spending powers of Congress. Experts also warn that one of the actions, a deferral of payroll tax collection, could threaten funding for Social Security and Medicare, exacerbating the long-term cash shortfalls the programs already face.
Here’s a breakdown of the executive actions and what they really mean.
Unemployment benefits: The Trump memorandum would provide $400 in enhanced unemployment benefits to eligible workers, down from the $600 provided by the CARES Act passed in March. The Trump plan also has strings attached that could limit the number of people who get the benefit. Unemployed workers must receive at least $100 a week in other unemployment benefits in order to qualify for the $300 federal benefit, potentially leaving many low-income workers ineligible for the federal assistance. And states, many already financially strapped, must agree to cover 25% of the cost, or $100 per payment.
Trump said that states would be able to cover their costs by using money provided under the CARES Act or other state funding, but some states may not be able to afford the additional cost. States that don’t enter into the agreement with the federal government or don’t have the funds to cover their share of the payments would see the unemployed get no extra federal benefit. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin suggested on “Fox News Sunday” that the president would be willing to waive the 25% contribution from states.
States will also have to set up new systems to deliver aid under Trump’s plan, which reportedly could take months. “This is a brand new program, it's an assistance program for lost wages, it requires the creation of an entirely new administrative system. The states that don't get the program set up as quickly as other states aren't going to get any funding because it will run out,” Michelle Evermore, an unemployment expert at the National Employment Law Project, told CNN.
Federal funding for the program is also a question. Trump said he would use $44 billion allocated for disaster relief, but economists cited by The Washington Post project that would only cover some five weeks of payments based on current unemployment levels.
Payroll tax deferral: Trump ordered collection of the employee portion of payroll taxes — 6.2% for Social Security — to be deferred from September through the end of the year for Americans earning less than $104,000 annually. That means workers could eventually get hit with a big tax bill. As a result, and given the complexities involved, employers may continue to withhold the money to cover the taxes when they’re due.
Trump pledged Saturday to forgive the taxes and make the cuts permanent if he wins reelection. That pledge may give him a tax cut he can campaign on, but experts and critics warn that making such cuts permanent would weaken the finances of Social Security. “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,” Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, said. “He is laying out his roadmap to cutting Social Security.”
Mnuchin claimed Sunday that the suspension of payroll tax collections would not mean a reduction in benefits and that the shortfall in revenue to the Social Security Trust Fund would be made up by a transfer from the Treasury Department’s General Fund.
Eviction moratorium: The executive order addressing housing doesn’t reinstate an earlier moratorium on some types of evictions, which lapsed in July. Instead, it calls on the leaders of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control to “consider” whether such a ban is “necessary to prevent the further spread of COVID-19.”
What’s not covered by Trump’s actions: Trump’s actions don’t cover many of the other relief programs lawmakers had considered, including another round of $1,200 stimulus checks; funding for schools, election security and the U.S. Postal Service; an extension of the Paycheck Protection Program of loans to small businesses; and aid to state and local governments.
“The downside of executive orders is you can’t address some of the small business incidents that are there,” White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said. “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.”
What’s next: Democrats responded to Trump’s actions by urging the White House to come back to the negotiating table and meet them halfway. Trump tweeted Monday that Schumer and Pelosi now want to make a deal and have his phone number, but Democrats said there’s been no contact with the White House since Friday. Mnuchin told CNBC that the White House was “prepared to put more money on the table,” to reach an agreement. “If we can get a fair deal, we’re willing to do it this week,” he said.
The bottom line: There are no talks scheduled and if negotiations don’t resume, Trump is making a pair of risky bets, given all the questions surrounding his executive actions. First, that the economy he desperately wants to recover in time for the November elections won’t be further damaged by the lack of a broader deal. Economists warn that more aid will be needed. And as Jim Tankersley of The New York Times suggests, if the aid doesn’t arrive and the economy does slump toward recession again, Trump may well be betting his political future on the idea “that it is better to tell voters he tried to help the economy than to have actually helped it.”
$600 Weekly Unemployment Boost Cost Nearly $250 Billion in Total
The $600 boost to weekly unemployment benefits created by the CARES Act cost the federal government nearly $250 billion from early April to the end of July, according to Labor Department data reported by The Wall Street Journal Monday.
The peak period for payments was the week ending June 26, the Journal said, when $18.6 billion in benefits was distributed — the rough equivalent of 31 million $600 payments. Unemployed workers in the state of California received the largest total benefits ($38.4 billion), while those in South Dakota received the least ($177.1 million). Adjusted for workforce size, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania received the most, with Michigan getting about $2.9 million per 1,000 workers, nearly twice the national average of $1.5 million.
Congress passed the enhanced benefit in March as large parts of the economy were shutting down and millions of workers lost their jobs. The boost — officially called Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation — expired at the end of July.
Budget Deficit Rose to $2.8 Trillion Over 10 Months: CBO
The federal budget deficit in July was $61 billion, down from $120 billion in July 2019, the Congressional Budget Office estimated in a report published on Monday. The decrease was the result of this year’s tax day being pushed from April to July, resulting in much higher tax receipts, up 124% compared to July 2019.
Still, from April through July, revenues were down 10% from last year, CBO estimated, and the cumulative deficit for the first 10 months of the fiscal year reached $2.8 trillion — $1.9 trillion higher than in 2019. Revenues for the 10 months fell by 1% while spending rose by 51%.
Time-Traveling Tax Breaks, Thanks to Coronavirus
The coronavirus relief package signed into law in March gave money-losing companies the right to carry losses backward for up to five years, a move intended to help cash-strapped firms struggling amid the coronavirus shutdown get larger refunds from the IRS.
The rule change enables companies to get refunds now on taxes they paid at a 35% rate, before the 2017 tax cuts reduced it to 21%. This creates an opportunity for “rate arbitrage,” says Richard Rubin of The Wall Street Journal, in which companies load up on deductions today while pushing income into future years, and claim refunds based on taxes paid in prior years, when the tax rate was higher.
Here’s how Rubin describes the process: “For corporations with past profits, current losses and little risk of insolvency, the math is compelling. A $1 million deduction taken in 2020 is worth up to $350,000 in federal tax savings. The same $1 million deduction taken in 2021 is worth at most $210,000.”
Nearly two dozen publicly traded firms have already reported benefits from the rule totaling more than $2 billion, and that number is expected to grow. “We’re going to see some of the biggest firms in the U.S. economy benefit,” Rebecca Lester, a Stanford University accounting professor, told Rubin.
One example Rubin discusses is FedEx, which has recorded a tax benefit worth $71 billion from the refund rule change and is seeking permission to add another $130 million. It’s not clear how much the company needs the cash, though. At the end of May, the company reported holding $4.9 billion in cash and equivalents.
The arbitrage opportunity is not without critics, who question the need to give tax breaks to companies sitting on billions in cash. “The appetite for corporate tax breaks is truly insatiable,” Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX), told Rubin. “Now, it’s like time travel.”
- Trump’s Actions on Pandemic Relief Aren’t Illegal. They’re Just Ineffective. – Daniel Hemel, Washington Post
- Trump’s Executive Orders Won’t Cut It. Congress Needs to Make a Deal – Washington Post Editorial Board
- Trump’s Social Security Payroll Tax Holiday Is the First Shot in a Class and Generational War – Allan Sloan, Washington Post
- Trump’s Inadvertent Tax Hike – Catherine Rampell, Washington Post
- How a Payroll Tax Holiday Might Ultimately Cost Workers More Next Year – Darla Mercado, CNBC
- Trump Orders an Anti-Stimulus Plan for Struggling States – Brian Chappatta, Bloomberg
- Covid Stimulus Spending Should Aim to Improve Health-Care Value – Peter R. Orszag, Bloomberg
- Republicans’ Hypocrisy Endangers Separation of Powers – Cass R. Sunstein, Bloomberg
- Trump's Big Power Move Leaves Workers in Limbo – Stephen Collinson, CNN
- The Party in Power Is Resisting Pre-election Stimulus? Really? – Jennifer Rubin, Washington Post
- Trump Pretends He Has Saved the Economy While the Country’s Misery Deepens – Paul Waldman, Washington Post
- Coming Next: The Greater Recession – Paul Krugman, New York Times
- Trump’s Eviction Ban Would Leave Most Tenants in Peril – Katy O’Donnell, Politico
- How Politics, Personalities and Price Tags Derailed Covid Relief Talks – John Bresnahan and Marianne LeVine, Politico
- How Much Would President Trump's Executive Orders Cost? – Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget
New York and San Francisco Can’t Assume They’ll Bounce Back – Noah Smith, Bloomberg