On Saturday, with Congressional negotiations stalled, President Trump took four executive actions intended to provide relief to those suffering economic hardships stemming from the coronavirus pandemic. He ordered federal agencies to promote leniency on rents and mortgages, suspended interest payments on federal student loans, reallocated disaster funds to enable states to extend extra unemployment benefits, and directed federal tax authorities to allow employers to defer payroll-tax withholding. Democrats in Washington objected that the executive actions were inadequate to the task at hand. Republicans largely backed up the president.
Whatever their policy merits, however, the president’s actions inappropriately assumed core powers belonging to the legislature. It’s a bipartisan problem. President Obama similarly deferred enforcement of employer mandates in the Affordable Care Act notwithstanding clear contrary language in the statute—and more famously afforded new rights to unauthorized immigrants absent any Congressional authorization whatsoever.
Congressional paralysis can be frustrating, but our federal system is designed with checks and balances to avoid abuses of power. Unfortunately, the elected members of Congress have instead found it ever more convenient to offload hard decisions to the executive branch. This makes it easy for legislators to grandstand and fundraise while avoiding the hard work of political compromise. It also raises the stakes of presidential elections and thus undergirds political division. And far too often, it leaves the real work of government with unelected, unaccountable actors buried within the federal bureaucracy. It’s far past time for Congress to do its job.
James R. Copland is a senior fellow and director of legal policy at the Manhattan Institute. He is the author of “The Unelected: How an Unaccountable Elite is Governing America,” forthcoming in September. Follow him on Twitter here.
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