President Trump is abusing his authority, just as his predecessor Barack Obama abused his. Two executive actions he took in the name of COVID relief over the weekend are attempts to legislate without the legislature.
Trump has for months sought a payroll-tax holiday but encountered bipartisan resistance to the idea. Having failed to persuade the legislature, he has decided to suspend collection of the tax on anyone making less than $100,000. They will owe the uncollected taxes in a lump sum next year unless Congress changes the law.
Most in Congress, on the other hand, share the president’s desire to keep unemployment benefits higher than normal. Disagreement about how much higher, and about other provisions of a relief bill, have kept Congress from acting on this desire. So the president is attempting an end run on this issue, too, allowing states to receive grants to add $300 to normal weekly benefit levels if they put up another $100 themselves.
The constitutional issue these moves raise is the same one that Republicans rightly invoked against President Obama’s executive amnesties for illegal immigrants: Regardless of their policy merits, they were legislative acts that should not have been implemented without a joint decision by Congress and the president, in keeping with the constitutional structure. Even if there is a statutory basis for these acts, they are still an abuse. They warp the separation of powers to accomplish presidential goals, which is a violation of our system even if the president thinks Congress is being unreasonable — even if Congress is being unreasonable.
A deal on COVID relief measures remains necessary. Legislation — proper legislation — should provide for an extension of the heightened unemployment benefits but also for their gradual tapering off as the economy recovers. The legislation should at the same time undo the president’s abusive orders. Congress should for once bestir itself to defend its constitutional prerogatives.