Trump at Farm Bureau

President Donald Trump

President Trump issued four measures last weekend intended to help Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Trump said the orders were necessary because Congress failed to pass a stimulus package. The measures would provide Americans with $400 in additional weekly unemployment benefits, protect renters from eviction, defer payroll taxes and suspend student loan payments.

But the president's actions ignited debates about their constitutionality.

Many scholars say some of Trump's proposals are unconstitutional, some are questionable and others are legal but unrealistic.

Unemployment benefits

The first is a memorandum ordering $400 weekly enhanced unemployment benefits effective immediately through Dec. 6.

But how soon people might receive the benefits is unclear. Trump's order requires states to pay $100 of the $400. Several governors have said their states couldn't afford it.

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California-Berkeley School of Law, said in a statement Monday that Trump doesn't have the authority to extend unemployment benefits.

Josh Blackman, constitutional law professor at the South Texas College of Law in Houston, told the Capital Press the president is using an existing statute, which is legal, but he cannot require states to participate. Blackman predicts many states will opt out because they can't afford it.

Even if the president amends the memorandum so the aid is only federal, Joel Griffith, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, estimated the money could run out in eight weeks.

Rent relief

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, up to 40 million renters are at risk of being evicted this year.

The president seeks to stop evictions with an executive order. Constitutional scholar Blackman said he thinks this the order will have "zero effect" because it merely directs officials to look into options; it does not actually stop evictions.

Griffith of the Heritage Foundation said if the order results in an eviction moratorium that puts the burden on landlords, that creates a dangerous policy precedent.

A better option, Griffith said, would be to issue direct targeted housing aid — either at the local, state or federal level — so landlords don't bear all the weight.

Taxation

The next memorandum suspends the employee portion of Social Security for the rest of 2020.

Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor, told reporters the legality is "dubious at best."

Joel Griffith and Adam Michel, for the Heritage Foundation's analysis, said "the U.S. Constitution empowers only Congress — not the president — to enact tax policy."

Griffith told the Capital Press Trump is interpreting an existing law beyond its original intentions. The law authorizes the Secretary of the Treasury to delay tax deadlines for up to one year for taxpayers affected by a federally declared disaster. Griffith said it was intended for narrow application — not to blanket an entire nation.

Scholars say Trump is gambling that Congress will turn the delay into permanent tax forgiveness.

Student loans

Blackman said the president's memorandum to delay student loan payments is within the scope of his constitutional power.

Chemerinsky of UC-Berkeley disagreed, saying that even as an educator who wants loan payments suspended, he believes the president is taking a role that belongs to Congress.

Despite the questions, scholars say it's unlikely Congress will take Trump to court.

"Usually when the president oversteps, politicians say, 'See you in court.' They almost never do. This is such a tempest in a teapot," said Blackman.

Recommended for you