The Fight over COVID Relief Reveals the Brokenness of Our Political System

(Evgeniia Ozerkina/iStock/Getty Images Plus)
Congress won’t act. The executive can’t address the problem by itself, but tries anyway.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE A t the end of July, Congress and the White House smashed headlong into a hard deadline. Expanded unemployment benefits, as well as an eviction moratorium, expired, as policymakers had not agreed on a bill to continue them.

Two weeks later, there’s still no agreement. Congress is deadlocked; Republicans and Democrats agree that relief should continue, but they disagree about how much is needed and what the overall package should look like. Meanwhile, the president is trying to handle things himself through executive actions — actions that stretch the limits of his power and yet fall short of actually solving the problem.

And as elected officials dither, the economy is coming back online only slowly. Dramatically slashing unemployment payments is not a good move in such a situation. Workers still can’t find jobs, unemployment replaces only about half of their previous earnings on average with no additional boost, and businesses suffer when folks have less money to spend.

There has rarely been a better example of a longstanding problem in American politics: Congress doesn’t feel like doing its job, and the executive branch doesn’t feel like staying within its constitutionally established role.

In Congress, the basic problem is that House Democrats would like to spend $3 trillion while the Republicans want to keep it to $1 trillion, and neither side is willing to come close enough to the other’s preference to reach a deal. Democrats say they could come down to $2 trillion, but Republicans won’t double the size of their bill. In situations like this, Congress will sometimes pass a very short-term extension of the status quo to buy time, but Democrats rejected that idea.

On Saturday, President Trump signed four executive actions dealing with several aspects of the crisis, but to put it mildly, that didn’t help negotiators see eye-to-eye. Now the two sides aren’t even meeting with each other anymore, and with most lawmakers out on their August recess, it could be September before we see a new law.

As for the actions themselves, each is at least arguably legal, but two of them warp the powers that Congress has given to the president. And regardless, these actions don’t amount to a comprehensive approach to the crisis we confront.

One, for instance, simply instructs administration officials to start thinking about ways to keep renters from getting evicted. In itself it has no teeth whatsoever, though perhaps it will lead to further policy changes.

Another action extends the freeze on student debt, meaning borrowers don’t need to make payments and won’t accumulate interest until next year. This is not exactly a targeted measure to help those harmed by COVID-19, but the executive branch has broad authority to defer student loans, and it’s not the end of the world.

Trump is also trying to let states continue paying $300 in extra unemployment benefits at federal expense. However, people eligible for less than $100 a week in normal benefits won’t be able to get the boost, states may have trouble implementing the change quickly, and the funds available will last only about a month and a half. Further, there are serious questions as to whether the president can even do this under the law, especially the way his administration seems to be planning. (For those who want a deep dive, David Super has a rundown of the tangled legal issues over at the Balkinization blog, and Josh Blackman responds at the Volokh Conspiracy.)

Perhaps the most troubling action, though, is an attempt to pause collection of the 6.2 percent payroll tax that workers contribute to Social Security and Medicare. Neither Republicans nor Democrats in Congress want to cut payroll taxes right now — it’s not a logical response to the pandemic, because it doesn’t target the people most affected or most in need. But the administration disagrees, and it’s essentially trying to twist everyone else’s arms.

I say it’s an attempt to pause collection of the taxes because (A) the taxes are still owed, just at a later deadline, and (B) many employers might keep collecting the taxes from their employees’ paychecks rather than let unpaid taxes build up. The administration’s hope, apparently, is that Congress won’t have the guts to make everyone pay up at the end and will simply cut the tax retroactively. The president does have some authority to extend tax deadlines for those affected by a disaster, but that’s not meant to give him leverage over the lawmakers who actually set tax rates.

Congress shirking its duties is not new; neither is a president pushing the limits of his authority. It is remarkable, though, that even a major recession caused by a deadly pandemic could not make American government function properly.

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