By now, most are familiar with President Trump’s plethora of new Executive Orders relating to the economic crisis brought on by COVID-19. The four orders signed yesterday temporarily suspend student loan payments and set student loan interest rates to zero, reinstitute Congress’s moratorium on evictions for some renters and homeowners, reinstate the enhanced unemployment benefits provided by Congress in the CARES Act, and defer payroll taxes for employees whose gross income is less than $4,000 bi-weekly. There are two issues at play with the Executive Orders: whether the measures are beneficial in helping the country recover from the pandemic and whether President Trump has the authority to unilaterally decree such changes.
I have written in the past about the need for more economic relief, but today my larger concern is with the executive overreach by the president. The president cites his national emergency authority in the declarations but the bigger emergency than the pandemic seems to be that Mr. Trump could not get what he wanted from Congress.
There is a poster frequently seen around offices that proclaims, “Failure to plan ahead on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.” That is where the Trump Administration is. House Democrats passed several relief bills in May and June, but Republicans didn’t negotiate or offer an alternative until late July By that point, Trump’s polling numbers were dropping, many provisions of the CARES Act were expiring, and there was little time to reach a deal with Democrats.
Neither side seemed to really want a deal anyway. Speaker Pelosi drew a hard line, betting that failure to pass the bill would make Trump look bad. For his part, Trump took the bait and threatened executive action, which poisoned the well and all but assured that there would be no deal.
The president’s Executive Orders are obviously intended to curry favor with voters but this attempt at pandering may fall short. The enhanced unemployment benefits decreed by King Donald are less than what the Democrats had been proposing. Unemployed voters who had been receiving $600 supplements are going to realize that their payments are going down. Indeed, the president fought to cut benefits for the unemployed.
At this point, bypassing Congress with declarations of emergency has become Trump’s go-to move. Elected on the basis of his deal-making prowess, Trump has had little luck in dealing with Democrats. The president pushed Mitch McConnell to eliminate the filibuster and, when that failed, he settled on the tactic of using national emergency declarations.
At this point, the president has used national emergencies to legislate what Congress denied him no less than three times. The first was to secure funding for the border wall in February 2019. A few months later, in May 2019, the president declared another emergency to facilitate the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia after Congress balked in the Kashoggi murder. The COVID relief emergency orders are President Trump’s third trip to the well, but, if he is re-elected, we can be sure it won’t be the last. Why should he stop when Congress does nothing?
The same Republicans who rightly criticized President Obama’s abuses of executive authority in very harsh terms have little to say about President Trump’s even more blatant abuses of power. Not negatively anyway. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.), both of whom are facing tough re-election campaigns this year, are among the Republicans who tweeted praise for the Executive Orders.
I wrote recently that burning down the Republican Party was not a good plan, but when the party doubles down on Trump’s abuses of power even as the president crashes and burns in the polls, it makes it very difficult for a constitutionalist to support any of them. Loeffler and Rep. Doug Collins, my two Republican choices in the upcoming Senate special election, seem to differ only in how loudly they proclaim fealty to President Trump.
Whether you agree with Trump’s policies or not, the danger is in the precedent that he sets in his “unpresidented” actions. His tendency to legislate by emergency orders is one that can be easily adopted and expanded by the next Democrat in the White House. You may like Trump handing out money and managing the economy by executive fiat, but you probably won’t like it when President Biden or some other president declares a national emergency to combat climate change or gun violence.
And with the congressional partisans backing their tribe’s president, Republicans won’t be able to stop them. President Trump has shown that our institutions are insufficient to stop a president of poor character who has no respect for the rule of law. The last line of defense is voters who should rebuke, rather than reward, abuses of power, no matter which party the president belongs to.
There is a line in “Revenge of the Sith” where Senator Amidala opines, “This is how liberty dies… To thunderous applause.” That doesn’t seem to be totally correct.
What we are seeing is how democracy dies and authoritarianism rises. It is a slow and gradual process as executives encroach ever further into the role of the legislature. Democracy dies when the legislators don’t fight back and the courts do nothing to uphold the constitutional balance of powers.
This is how democracy ends. Not with a bang but with a whimper.
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