President Donald Trump signed a “bill” last Saturday that he said would offer coronavirus tax relief to millions of cash-strapped Americans in the midst of a deepening recession.
Trump signed the document that he repeatedly called a “bill” at his swanky Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club, showing his signature to the TV cameras, as if it was a duly enacted piece of congressional legislation.
In truth, the document he showed to the meeting’s assembled supporters and wealthy club members was an “executive action” of his own invention, entirely bypassing congressional approval that the Constitution requires.
The document offered new unemployment benefits, postponed payment of federal taxes, protected renters who were behind in their rental payments from being evicted and lets workers earning less than $104,000 delay their payroll taxes that finance Medicare and Social Security.
Trump said he would try to rewrite the federal rules to turn the deferred Social Security and Medicare tax payments into a permanent tax cut. Sure.
Since he began his presidency, Trump has pushed his belief that he possesses executive powers that go far beyond the authority that was set down in the Constitution by our Founding Fathers.
Indeed, it is doubtful that Trump has ever read the Constitution. He entered office telling his advisers that he wanted them to keep any written material they sent him to a single page.
Presidents, from time to time, can take executive actions on their own in certain circumstances. But they do not possess any power to set taxes, write new tax laws or create their own “bills.”
In Article I, Section 8, the Constitution says that only “The Congress shall have Power to lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts, and provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States.”
When Larry Kudlow, Trump’s director of the White House National Economic Council, heard that Trump had unilaterally extended federal unemployment benefits, he said, “I think that requires an act of Congress.” It does.
The so-called executive order amounts to an about-face from Trump’s own campaign promises as a presidential candidate.
“We don’t want to continue to watch people signing executive orders because that was not what the Constitution and the brilliant designers of this incredible document had in mind,” Trump said in March 2016. “We need people that can make deals.”
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who stayed out of the negotiations between the White House and the Democrats, stood by Trump’s action.
“Struggling Americans need action now,” McConnell said this week in a statement. “Since Democrats have sabotaged backroom talks with absurd demands that would not help working people, I support President Trump exploring his options to get unemployed benefits and other relief to the people who need them the most,” he said.
But if Trump thinks he can enact his own legislative “bills,” he had better hire some fact-checkers first. It wasn’t long before he started getting complaints from the states that they couldn’t afford to pony up their share of the unemployment benefits.
Under Trump’s executive order, the feds offered to pay unemployment workers $300 in weekly benefits for five weeks. After that, the states would be on the hook for possibly billions of dollars, money that wasn’t in their budgets.
“States are going broke, and millions of Americans are unemployed, yet the solution calls for states to create a new program we can’t afford to begin with,” New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy told reporters earlier this week.
Meantime, Trump has learned a valuable lesson in statecraft. He can’t be both the chief executive and the legislature. Read the Constitution, Mr. President.