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President Trump’s Coronavirus Executive Orders Signal a Huge Change in American Government

Last week, our system of government changed fundamentally. Last week, the President usurped the power to control taxes and spending without the input of Congress.

President Trump after signing Executive Orders on Transparency in Federal Guidance and Enforcement. Oct. 9, 2019

President Trump issued a series of four “emergency” executive orders to provide coronavirus relief to individuals and businesses. Two of them were innocuous enough. One is essentially an administrative directive to identify funds to support those living in federally-subsidized housing. And the other is a moratorium on the collection of student loan payments, with forgiveness of interest on the deferred payments. The remaining two seem like necessary actions in our current crisis, but they both set a sinister precedent.

The first of these two orders provided for $400/month of coronavirus relief, with 25% funding by the state governments. The second is a payroll tax deferral, waiving the employee portion of the payroll tax on wages (6.2%) to increase employee take-home pay. The first is an order to spend money that Congress did not authorize, and for states to spend money they did not authorize either. The second amounts to a revision of the tax code in defiance of federal statutes. But the power to tax and spend is simply not one the President has, if our Constitution was followed.

According to Article I, section 7 of the Constitution, the House of Representatives has the exclusive right to propose tax increases:

All bills for raising revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with amendments as on other Bills.

In addition to this control over taxation, the Constitution adds exclusive control of spending:

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.

The power to levy taxes and control tax rates rests with Congress, as do the power to spend money, and issue debt to raise money. These powers make up what is known as the “power of the purse”. Every government with a separation of powers takes the power to raise and spend money away from the executive. It is the one check that prevents rule by a single person.

How did the president claim the authority to do this? He’s relying on legal opinions written by his Justice Department to interpret the Supreme Court’s ruling on the President’s attempted roll back of President Obama’s DACA program. The ruling, which denied the President the authority to shut down the program on an administrative technicality, is being twisted to justify an expansion of presidential power. This is not conjecture. The President alluded to it in a July 19th interview with Chris Wallace of Fox News, where he said:

“The Supreme Court gave the president of the United States powers that nobody thought the president had.”

If the president can declare war, but can’t raise money to conduct it, that power is useless. If he can control the operations of a department, but Congress does not appropriate money for it, that power is a moot point. It is the one power that makes Congress supreme in our system of government.

And they just abdicated it.

It was recently announced that the Senate would adjourn until September by the Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell. What this means is that these orders by the President will stand, and that Senator McConnell is endorsing a new system where the president makes the law, and Congress advises. It is a failure, a complete dereliction of duty by the legislative branch, that brought us to this impasse.

As we went into this crisis, they could have been proactive and made policy and not waited on the political winds to blow a certain way, or for the mood of a temperamental president to swing their way. They could have operated in regular order, passing small, narrowly tailored bills to address each individual issue. Instead, during one of the worst crisis in American history, they turned to petty partisan politics, and turned every aspect of the coronavirus response into a political football.

Senators focused on symbolic gestures at sporting events, on which retail brands were appropriate to buy from, and on creating symbolic photo ops in the capitol rotunda. Instead of leading and legislating, they focused on fundraising and driving turnout of their bases. While a record number of Americans were thrown out of work. While they continued to wonder how to make ends meet. While they had to close their businesses, and look for new jobs. While they continued to die.

Action was necessary, and Congress did not take it. They abdicated to a lawless president using legal opinions that effectively invalidated the power of the purse and the separation of powers. And in doing this, this Congress brought shame on themselves and this nation, and rendered tremendous damage to our system of government. Damage that will take at least a generation to repair, if it all.


Sources:

[1] The Associated Press. (n.d.). Retrieved August 14, 2020, from https://www.ap.org/en-us/

[2] LII / Legal Information Institute. 2020. U.S. Constitution Article I. [online] Available at: <https://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/articlei&gt; [Accessed 14 August 2020].

[3] Transcript: ‘Fox News Sunday’ interview with President Trump. (2020, July 19). Retrieved August 14, 2020, from Fox News: https://www.foxnews.com/politics/transcript-fox-news-sunday-interview-with-president-trump

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