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Is It All Political Theater?

Terry H. Schwadron

Aug. 10, 2020

The more we hear about Donald Trump’s weekend attempt to circumvent the impasse in Congress to author a coronavirus aid package for individual survival and economic stimulus, the worse it gets.

Trump started with an idea that he alone could arrive, as if on a victorious stallion, to lead the way through executive actions bypassing law and normal procedure to extend unemployment benefits for individual workers and families, to stimulate a business and hiring rebound, to protect student loan and rent exemptions and, along the way to address his pet project — temporarily suspending the payroll tax.

Basically, Trump made his announcement, basked in his homegrown limelight before a crowd of members at his own New Jersey golf club, and abruptly walked away from reporter questions about how it all is supposed to work.

As it turns out, three of the four orders are not orders at all. They are suggestions to federal agencies to consider enforcing such policies. The fourth, the payroll tax order, may not be legal, and certainly is seen as inadequate to provide measurable kind of stimulus to businesses to boost hiring.

Moreover, the set of four orders do not address extension of $1,200 stimulus checks to individuals, small business loans to keep people on payrolls, industry funds for airlines and the like, coronavirus testing expansion or money to make schools safe to open as he insists they do, or, importantly, to recompense state costs for coronavirus, as which he is sworn to oppose.

These executive orders basically are memos to governors to advise that they spend FEMA emergency coronavirus monies to supplement state unemployment checks by $400 a week. Trump’s directive to halt evictions primarily calls for federal agencies to “consider” if they should be stopped and for banks likewise to consider suspending requirements for repayment of student loans or interest.

Not Effective

“Political theater,” read one internet headline.

The Washington Post, which noted that the only economy being boosted here was for lawyers challenging the orders, quoted a national expert on unemployment systems that the actions would not increase federal unemployment benefits at all, but set up a new program that could take months to set up. Trump also mischaracterized the legal stature of the measures, referring to them as “bills,” product of Congress not the White House.

But the main problem here is that the White House wants things to be easy when they are not. The politics of this impasse say that Trump must reach accommodation with Democrats to get anything passed in both houses of Congress, and he simply does not want to do so. Senate Republicans are split about whether they will support any spending at all, and certainly oppose some of the provisions that Democrats believe essential, including aid to states.

But no one wants to look like Scrooge in time of pandemic, and so, somehow, Trump thinks taking an action — any action, whether legal or not, effective or not — will show him to be arriving as a late-inning hero to the blazing fire.

Lots of people were talking in the aftermath of the order signing that there will be legal challenges aplenty.

But it is not immediately clear who has the appropriate “standing” to bring suit against a White House that is building more and more momentum for vastly expanded presidential power. And, of course, court suits take time, and we are talking about immediate emergency actions here.

The outcome of legal challenge would be cancellation or dilution of executive orders, which is fine for Constitutional balance, but has little to do with whether the millions currently out of work have cash in hand to pay the rent.

Of all the choices that the White House could have made, from making food more available to actually negotiating with Democrats in Congress, the sole hero act seems to be falling immediately flat — except for the photos.

Building Leverage?

The idea from talk shows and various analyses is that the White House was attempting to build its leverage in continuing negotiations with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. It is frankly difficult to see how ineffective orders do so.

More to the point, perhaps the most significant policy shift to emerge over the weekend was Trump’s promise to make his brand-new, temporary suspension of payroll taxes into a permanent one. Since the payroll tax is a main supporter for Social Security and Medicare, Trump was promising that a second Trump term would bring about an attack on Social Security, as a prime “entitlement program.” As usual, there was no alternative being offered.

Trump is “against” programs, not “for” them. When he tries to be “for” policies, he often fails to spell out how they are supposed to work or sustain themselves or meet any measure of success.

How opposing Social Security is helpful to a flailing Trump re-election campaign is baffling, of course, but it is clear, and now, at least, there is something meaty for Trump and Joe Biden to debate and to create non-insulting difference. Biden took only a few moments to criticize an attack on Social Security.

Day by day, it becomes increasingly clear that we are on our own, that the Trump government is in the Trump-promotion business, not the business of Making Americans Great or even safe.


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Journalist, musician, community volunteer

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