Trump, GOP Senate posture; people suffer

President Trump has tried to short-circuit the congressional efforts to come up with a new bill on federal Covid-19 aid. That’s today’s politics, but much more.

Here’s the story. In May, the House of Representatives under Democratic control passed a new $3 trillion aid package. It waited for the Senate under Republican control to pass its version so that negotiations could begin.

But the GOP senators could not agree among themselves or with the Trump administration as the clock was running out on income-support benefits. Finally, they came up with a much smaller package and tried to force the Democrats into a take it-or-leave it bind.

Racing the clock, the two parties failed to agree. Part of the gap resulted from each party trying to add extra features and to favor their supporters.

The GOP then offered a small deal, supposedly meant to tide people over until a compromise could be reached. Sen. Collins did not mention the delayed Republican proposal, while blaming the Democrats for not accepting the band-aid deal.  Later, she shifted to criticizing Trump’s moves.

Democratic leaders worried that there would be nothing more after the supposedly temporary deal the GOP was offering as a temporary solution. Their proposal could be a clever way for the Republicans to get what they wanted. As expected, the Democrats rejected it.

Benefits ran out. In stepped Trump with executive measures seeming to offer some benefits. Obviously, his move was sure to be controversial, but it could be seen as forcing an agreement between the two parties. Even if his measures would have little effect and might never take effect, he would take credit for forcing a deal.

A deal was probably possible except for Senate Republican leadership. They would not allow a bill opposed by some Republicans and only passed thanks to Senate Democratic support.

Voters should remember this partisan principle when they hear talk of “moderate” senators or claims of being able to work “across the aisle.”

In short, Trump and Senate GOP leaders have been caught between the Democratic House bill and conservative Republican senators who oppose more major spending and might not support a compromise any larger than the Senate bill.

Trump, who openly despises Democrats, would not force the GOP into such a deal. But, given his lagging reelection campaign, he could not accept the failure to adopt an aid package. So he tried to act independently when Congress was still struggling for an accord.

His moves raise two quite separate problems. Sen. King described them both: “In the midst of one the most serious economic and health crises in a century, the President is attempting to use powers he doesn’t have to push a relief plan that won’t work.”

His attempted moves won’t really provide much help to working people and will do nothing for state and local governments, small businesses and food aid. They are more cosmetic than helpful.

Unemployed workers have been receiving a $600 added federal weekly benefit. It has helped. The Democrats wanted to maintain it and the Republicans wanted to cut it.

Trump believes he can order federal spending to support $300, provided states come up with an additional $100 to yield a reduced benefit. It wouldn’t work if already hard-pressed states could not pay their share.

He likes the idea of reducing the payroll tax, but the best he could do was to stop deducting it from paychecks until after the election. Workers would still owe the money and would have to pay it later, after the election. Without those payments, Social Security would be undermined.

The president would appear to have acted even if little happened. To promote his campaign, he had no problem making Congress and the states look bad.

Trump’s actions would, under the Constitution, belong to Congress. He cannot pay for benefits without congressional approval. Only Congress can raise and spend money.

He would take money from funds appropriated for other purposes. He relies on his declaration of a national emergency to allow him to replace congressional spending decisions with his own favorite policies. Do we need Congress or even state governments with such presidential power?

King said that if was Trump was allowed to do that, he would be “moving us toward an elected monarchy.” Together with his desire to delay or nullify an election, that could be a serious threat.

But King may ignore the fact that Congress is partly responsible. It has too often given the president excessive powers, based on what is turning out to be a misplaced sense of trust.

The Wall Street Journal called this situation a “squabble.” It’s a lot more than that.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.