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Editorial: What the president ordered

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With a polarized Congress unable or unwilling to work together to make difficult choices, President Donald Trump has stepped in and issued executive orders extending urgently needed federal benefits and legal protections to the unemployed and people facing eviction.

To millions of Americans threatened with possible financial disaster through no fault of their own, it likely will matter less if the action was a calculated political move to bolster a reelection campaign or a bold gambit to break the congressional logjam and get assistance to those who need it as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on.

Republicans were reasonably alarmed about the Democrats’ original $3 trillion stimulus proposal, which contained demands with potentially long-lasting financial consequences and included items unrelated to the pandemic, such as election mandates on states. U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-California, and U.S. Sen. Chuck Shumer, D-New York, reduced their proposal to $2 trillion but it remains far apart from the Republicans’ $1 trillion offer.

Into this political gamesmanship stepped Mr. Trump, who cited specific laws enacted by Congress that empowered him to act. But his own political calculation includes deferring some payroll taxes through the end of the year, which is within his legal purview, with the promise that he will propose legislation so workers won’t have to repay them — if voters return him to office. (Only Congress can cancel the taxes.)

Clearly, the president has the authority to urge the federal government not to pursue eviction notices for defaulting renters of public housing or homeowners with federally subsidized mortgages. How this is worked out in practice remains to be seen, and lien holders will have to be recompensed at some point.

To meet the urgent crisis for many American families caused by Congress’ failure to extend federal unemployment benefits to those thrown out of work by the pandemic, Mr. Trump used his authority to allocate funds under his emergency powers authority and the Stafford Act.

Mr. Trump is offering to put up $300 a week in “lost wage replacement” for affected individuals, leaving states to choose whether to put up an additional $100. This is less than the expired $600 a week federal unemployment supplement, but closer to actual wage replacement than that generous benefit. If South Carolina declines to add the extra $100 a week, the maximum available to unemployed people still would be more than $600 a week, close to the state’s median wage.

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This money would come from the Disaster Relief Fund. The pandemic certainly qualifies as a disaster, with shutdowns and mass unemployment, but Congress provided jobless aid in the CARES Act, apart from the Disaster Relief Fund, and Mr. Trump’s action could be seen as an unconstitutional taking of the power of the purse from Congress.

In the long run, the increasing use of executive orders is yet another consequence of a dysfunctional Congress. This problem has been growing for years as presidents have been emboldened to expand their powers.

We have often deplored the use of executive action to bypass Congress, such as President Barack Obama’s “pen and phone” actions. This dysfunctional method of governing does not comport with the intent of the Founding Fathers and the Constitution, and it needs to stop.

In the future, perhaps only months from now, Republicans should not act surprised if a Democratic administration cites Mr. Trump’s action as a precedent to bypass Congress and push through agenda items that otherwise wouldn’t pass muster in the legislative process. Both parties should seek a return to regular order and proper checks and balances.

Mr. Trump’s executive orders could save many people from looming financial disaster, which is commendable, but they come at a high cost, as did his predecessors’ orders. And they are no substitute for much-needed congressional action. Like many issues facing our country, it ultimately will be up to the voters to decide which direction we take from here.

Editor's note: This editorial was corrected to reflect that the Democrats reduced their proposal from $3 trillion to $2 trillion.

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