Over the weekend, President Trump signed four executive actions that he claimed will “take care of pretty much this entire situation.” The situation to which he refers is the failure of Democrats and Republicans in Congress to agree on and legislate the next plan to provide relief to people and places suffering from the health and economic impacts of the surging coronavirus.
In fact, Trump’s attempt to skirt Congress is highly likely to fail on every level. The orders are toothless, inadequate and unimplementable — and one has the long-run potential to defund Social Security. Just as important, however, is what these actions reveal about the unique way in which the Trump administration fails to govern.
While Trump claimed that his executive order on preventing evictions will extend the expired federal moratorium and provide renters with cash assistance, this is false. All he does is direct federal agencies to try to find some money within existing, already stretched budgets and figure out some ways to help people avoid losing their homes.
His attempt to extend expired unemployment benefits is probably unimplementable and possibly unlawful. For one, it requires states that are already facing huge budget shortfalls to somehow find the money to pay for one-quarter of his proposed extra $400-per-week benefits (down from the $600 enhanced weekly benefit that expired at the end of July). The other 75 percent comes from repurposing disaster relief money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (if you’re thinking that taking FEMA funds at the beginning of what is predicted to be a much busier-than-usual hurricane season isn’t exactly forward-looking, I agree). This could take months to set up, and state legislatures have to decide to agree to the plan. Even if they do, the amount in question would last only for about a month.
Another memorandum invokes the president’s disaster authority to instruct Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to defer the collection of payroll taxes for workers earning less than about $100,000 a year. This one goes beyond feckless; if Trump gets his way, it would threaten Social Security’s long-term survival. The keyword in terms of the economic impact of cutting the payroll tax is “deferral.” That means that employers, and thus workers, will be hit with a tax bill for the full amount of the deferral in January (this stands in contrast to legislated payroll tax breaks, which allocate funds to cover the loss to the Social Security Trust Fund). So I expect many employers to essentially opt out of the program by just putting aside the amount needed for the post-deferral tax hit — which means it will help neither the economy nor any workers. It should also be noted that cutting payroll taxes does nothing to help the millions of unemployed people, who aren’t drawing any salary and, thus, are not paying the payroll tax in the first place.
But there is a deeper risk embedded in this idea. In announcing the deferral, Trump made a campaign pledge: “If I’m victorious on November 3, I plan to forgive these taxes and make permanent cuts to the payroll tax.” Make no mistake: This is a plan to defund Social Security. To do so has long been a goal of hard-right conservatives, and starving the system of its funding source would do the trick.
Before turning to the bigger picture here, consider a report over the weekend from The Washington Post on the administration’s “lost summer” in terms of controlling the spread of the coronavirus. The Post said that Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, “no longer holds a daily 8 a.m. meeting that includes health professionals to discuss the raging pandemic. Instead, aides said, he huddles in the mornings with a half-dozen politically oriented aides — and when the virus comes up, their focus is more on how to convince the public that President Trump has the crisis under control, rather than on methodically planning ways to contain it.”
Reading that description while trying to make sense of these executive actions reveals the root cause of the mess we’re in. The goal of this administration has never been to solve problems. It has been to use its prodigious reality-bending skills to create the impression that problems are being solved. It is not an overstatement to assert that the gap between these two is a matter of life and death, both for our democracy and, especially in a pandemic, the people in it.
These four actions solve nothing. The payroll tax deferral, if extended, threatens great harm to an essential retirement security program. The administration did nothing to help resolve the congressional negotiations and didn’t even pretend to come up with a plan for enhanced unemployment benefits until after they’d expired. In part because of that expiration, we now face a potential wave of evictions, which Trump’s order does nothing to prevent.
And underlying all this discussion about the need for fiscal relief is the administration’s epic failure to control the virus.
It should be undeniably clear to all that we can no longer afford faux governance. We desperately need the real thing. To be clear, that is not a partisan statement. There is a wide continuum of approaches to meet the daunting challenges we face. I’ve got my preferences; you’ve got yours. But we’ll never be able to honestly resolve our differences and compromise on solutions until we reject playacting governance and insist on the real thing.