The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The eviction moratorium mess exposes the decay in American politics

People calling for an extension of the eviction moratorium in New York on Wednesday, Aug. 4. (Justin Lane/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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A last-minute order by unelected bureaucrats to extend the pandemic moratorium on evictions is perhaps humane — if landlords aren’t human — but in other ways is a billboard displaying so much that is wrong with American politics.

First, it is an example of posturing over governing. The moratorium issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September 2020 (and extended multiple times) was an emergency response to an emergency situation: When covid-19 hit, the economy shut down overnight. Millions were thrown out of jobs. No one knew quite what to expect. For multitudes to lose their homes would have been an unnecessary additional calamity.

The long-term solution was to restore the economy, which has been done in significant measure. The midterm solution was to provide financial aid to pandemic victims so they could keep up with their rent through the crisis. That money — tens of billions — was appropriated. But through failures of government, the bulk of the relief is sitting unused.

FAQ: The eviction moratorium has been extended for many renters, but not for all. Here’s what you need to know.

Whatever crisis was created when the moratorium on evictions expired on July 31, it was a crisis of competence, not of caring. Governments across the country have failed to deliver available aid to the people who need it. But instead of solving that problem, the CDC order extending the moratorium is almost certainly illegal and fails to address the core problem.

As of June, over 6 million people were behind on rent. Landlords across the United States are still owed about $27.5 billion. (Video: Monica Rodman, Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post, Photo: Stefani Reynolds/The Washington Post)

Posturing in such ways rather than finding solutions is a poison in the bloodstream of modern politics.

Second, we have here yet another failure by Congress and yet another executive branch overreach. The moratorium deadline was set by the Supreme Court, which is the last branch of government — maybe the last small band of people on Earth — with constitutional respect for the House of Representatives.

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The court properly ruled that if the rights of property owners to enforce rental contracts are to be suspended indefinitely, only the legislative branch can do it. But when the time came, Congress was absorbed in such weighty matters as whether the minority leader is a “moron,” as the speaker of the House alleged, or whether the speaker should be battered with a gavel, as the minority leader suggested. The moratorium expired — at which point members of Congress hollered for the president to exercise almost kingly powers in defiance of the Supreme Court to do the work the legislature had failed to do.

Expanding the extralegal powers of the executive branch is another poison in the bloodstream of modern politics.

Third, the handling of the moratorium is more of the same unhealthy dependence on unelected judges to be the last grown-ups in the room. In late June, Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh crafted a Solomonic solution to the legal question of a nationwide eviction freeze. While agreeing with many of his conservative colleagues that the CDC bureaucracy lacked authority to maintain the moratorium, Kavanagh nevertheless used his deciding vote to give Congress time to act.

Rather than accept this compromise, Democrats in Congress and the administration are now defying Kavanaugh and the court majority — and you can be sure they will portray the conservative justices as coldhearted when the rule of law is ultimately enforced. Remember: The moratorium is no longer protecting needy renters. It is protecting the government agencies that are failing to connect those needy renters with available resources to assist them.

Overreliance on judges to take all the hardest decisions in a free society, leaving elected representatives off the hook, is still another poison in the political bloodstream.

And fourth, the episode is a reflection of the cartoonish divisions of U.S. society into us vs. them. Not every landlord is rich and unfeeling. Not every renter in arrears is helpless and good. Indeed, the moratorium protects renters earning nearly up to $99,000 per year — and twice that for married couples who file joint tax returns.

Opinion by the Editorial Board: There’s plenty of money to avoid evictions. States just have to spend it.

It’s a free country, and Americans can subscribe to a belief that property is theft if they want to. But the law says otherwise. People are allowed to purchase real estate and to rent their property for money. There is no moratorium on mortgage payments for landlords. Their bills come due every month.

This brings us back to the first point: competence vs. posturing. As a society, we decided through our elected officials to cushion the impact of the pandemic on renters and landlords. Huge sums of money have been appropriated for that purpose. The task of government bureaucracies is to distribute that relief to legitimately needy renters so they can pay what they owe.

Instead we have a bureaucracy, the CDC, depriving property owners of contractual protections month after month — while members of Congress and the administration maneuver to blame the Supreme Court for future evictions.

In sum: political decay dressed up to look like compassion.