The Sharpies squeaked as President Donald Trump put his signature on four documents over the weekend promising aid for Americans feeling the economic brunt of the coronavirus pandemic. The orders were ostensibly meant to deliver action after lawmakers on the Hill failed to reach an agreement last week on the terms of the next federal aid package and further talks are on permanent hold. But beyond the toxic fumes, there’s still no tangible help on the way for Americans facing evictions, student loans, payroll taxes or even reduced unemployment checks — the four threats that the memos covered. Instead, what Trump signed over the weekend sets in motion a constitutional standoff over federal powers and a political quagmire for Democrats trying to check this President’s wanton rebudgeting of taxpayers’ dollars.
The President knew exactly what he was doing. The political show was one designed for cameras’ flashes, not action. When pushed by reporters at his golf club in New Jersey for details of how the orders will work, Trump couldn’t confirm when any of his promises would turn into reality. They weren’t designed to. The eviction relief plan was merely an encouragement for landlords and tenants to find a compromise, his student-loans and payroll-tax holidays were merely suspensions of due dates, and the plus-up on unemployment benefits was only an idea that requires states’ buy-in, which is not going to happen.
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During normal times, Congress decides how much programs like student-loan deferments can have and the Administration spends the cash. These days, Trump is redirecting money as if Congress didn’t weigh in at all. For instance, Trump, in his edicts, re-imagines hurricane-relief dollars as pandemic bailout cash.
Theoretically, that leaves Congress primed to challenge the White House, a move that would demand Democrats stand up and say Trump has no power to repurpose taxpayer dollars this way. It’s a constitutionally-sound objection, but one that puts Democrats arguing against rescuing struggling Americans. Do Democrats, in an election year, want to be the ones signing onto lawsuits that challenge a President’s power to unilaterally re-budget dollars that help the 30-plus-million Americans who have lost their jobs so far? On Sunday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the orders bypassing Congress “absurdly unconstitutional,” but dodged the question whether she and fellow Democrats would take Trump to court over them.
Trump has been buoyed by last month’s Supreme Court ruling that permits him to retool Pentagon dollars to build his border wall — despite the fact that Congress didn’t mean for those dollars to do that. In interviews, Trump has cited that ruling as rationale for near-absolute power to reprogram taxpayer dollars as he sees fit. It is inevitably a course that will send him back to the Supreme Court. His efforts to shift dollars through these orders is a prime example of where Democrats have good cause to check him. But, with fewer than 100 days before Election Day, the ground is plenty shaky. Democrats may end up prevailing in the long run — but their win would mean the pandemic’s victims lose out on Trump’s promised bounty.
A version of this article first appeared in The DC Brief, TIME’s politics newsletter. Sign up here to get stories like this sent to your inbox every weekday.