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COVID-19 in Maryland

Van Hollen: Trump’s Weekend Orders to Help Ailing Americans Were a ‘Mirage’

U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D). Photo by Danielle E. Gaines

President Trump signed a stack of documents — “executive orders,” he called them — with great fanfare at his country club in New Jersey last weekend.

But those papers, which the president claimed would help unemployed workers, tenants at risk of eviction and college students, are a “sham,” according to U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).

“It was mostly show rather than real substance. It was something that we would come to expect from somebody who was really good at reality TV but somebody who did not understand the painful realities being experienced by Americans throughout this country,” he said in an interview.

Van Hollen called Trumps actions “inadequate” and “unworkable.” 

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) is still “reviewing” Trump’s orders, a spokesman said. 

Negotiations between the president’s top advisers and House Democrats on COVID-19 aid collapsed without agreement last week, leading Trump to stage last weekend’s event at his golf resort, where he was vacationing.

Despite his claims, it was still not clear on Tuesday whether the documents he signed carry much weight — or whether he has the power to do what he claimed to be doing, critics and scholars said. 

His $400-per-week federal supplement to unemployment compensation — to replace the $600 payments that expired earlier this month — require a $100-per-worker-per-week contribution from the states, for example.

Given the demands of the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting hit to the economy, it’s uncertain how many — if any — states can afford that additional expense. 

In remarks on the Senate floor on Monday and in an interview with Maryland Matters on Tuesday, Van Hollen said most states have already spent or earmarked all the money they received under the CARES Act, leaving them unable to qualify for Trump’s new offer. 

“That money is already spoken for,” he said. 

Even if states have funds left over, shifting resources from one pot to another pits one group of needy constituents against another, he said. 

Governors “are going to have to fire that emergency responder who will now both be out of a job and unable to provide emergency assistance, so that you can give a $100 match to help somebody who has lost their job a little bit more,” he said. “That’s what the president of the United States’s plan says.”

“That is not how a country should be responding in the middle of a pandemic,” Van Hollen added. 

States that accept Trump’s $300 per week aid would also have to reprogram their unemployment insurance programs, websites and apps, a process certain to take weeks.

The U.S. Labor Department held a briefing for state labor agencies on Tuesday afternoon in an attempt to answer questions. Every state that the Hogan administration has spoken with is “on the fence” about whether to participate, an aide said. 

There are also questions about whether Trump’s action usurps Congress’s power to allocate funding. 

“Clearly in some parts of his executive order, in his memos, he does not have the Constitutional authority to do that,” Van Hollen said. “We’ve heard that from some of the Senate Republican members already.”

Rep. Andrew P. Harris, the lone Republican in Maryland’s congressional delegation, refused to answer a series of questions about Trump’s actions. 

Trump claimed over the weekend to offer tenants who’ve fallen behind on their rent protection from evictions. But advocates and legal scholars say he lacks that power. 

“Nothing in that order keeps people in their homes one extra day,” constitutional scholar Kim Wehle, a professor at the University of Baltimore, told WUSA-TV. “Only Congress at this point can do that.” 

Matt Losak, the executive director of the Montgomery County Renters Alliance, called it “reprehensible” that Trump would “dangle hope in front of desperate people for political purposes.” 

Losak said it’s up to governors to enact an “extended and broad moratorium” on evictions to avoid the “community chaos” that would occur if families are turned out of their homes en masse.

“Based on what I’ve read and what I’ve seen, there was no order,” Losak said. “There was an urging that was wrapped in the appearance of an order that is in fact not an order.”

Van Hollen called the president’s protections a “mirage.”

“He said [the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services] and the CDC should consider whether an extended eviction moratorium is reasonably necessary to protect the public health,” Van Hollen said. 

“And then he asks [the Departments of House and Urban Development] and Treasury to look around in their bank accounts to see if they have any money to help people who might be evicted.”

The senator also slammed Trump for a payroll holiday scheme that he said is fraught with budgetary and logistical obstacles. 

On their surface, the actions might appear to be giving workers additional take-home pay, he acknowledged.

The reality is that the payroll taxes that aren’t paid now will have to paid at a future time, creating massive accounting headaches. Or they will be forgiven by the government, causing shortages in Social Security and Medicaid. 

“At the end of the day, they will have to pay that back to Uncle Sam,” the lawmaker said. 

In addition, the actions do nothing to help the estimated 30 million people who are out of work. “They are not getting a paycheck. They have got nothing to deduct something from.” 

“It really is a shell game in the first sense, and in many ways, a sham,” he added. 

Governors are urging Congress to approve $500 billion in new aid, to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and to backfill revenue lost to the economic crisis. The House passed such a bill, the HEROES Act, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has refused to allow a vote on it.

Van Hollen excoriated McConnell for sending senators home before an aid deal is reached. 

 “The virus isn’t taking a vacation,” he said. “The virus isn’t taking any time off. The economic harm isn’t taking a vacation or any time off. And, yet, here we are in the Senate, all quiet.”

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Van Hollen: Trump’s Weekend Orders to Help Ailing Americans Were a ‘Mirage’