Trump’s $400: Don’t hold your breath

Signing an executive order at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, Saturday. (White House Instagram)

If — and it’s a big if — Nevadans ever receive additional unemployment benefits announced by President Donald Trump, it won’t be any time soon, the payments won’t last very long, and they almost assuredly won’t be $400 a week.

Trump signed a memorandum Saturday that he claimed would give unemployed people $400 a week.

The House passed legislation weeks ago extending the $600 a week in federal unemployment benefits that expired at the end of July. But Senate Republicans can’t even agree among themselves on unemployment benefits, assistance to states and schools, protections from evictions and other components of a pandemic relief measure. Trump Saturday purported to be coming to the rescue.

Trump’s unemployment memorandum would take $44 billion from the Department of Homeland Security’s Disaster Relief Fund. The memo’s legal justification for paying unemployment benefits without authorization from Congress, holder of purse strings (or so the founders intended), is a law called the Stafford Act.

“You can’t pay unemployment benefits under the Stafford Act unless a person isn’t eligible for any other jobless benefits,” Indivar Dutta-Gupta, co-executive director at the Georgetown Center on Poverty & Inequality, told USAToday. “They’re running into legal problems.”

States “cannot use their current Unemployment Insurance infrastructure to pay a benefit that is not authorized by Congress,” according to the National Employment Project (NELP).

Even if the legal, perhaps constitutional, hurdle is surmounted, the proposal is fraught with multiple other problems.

Trump’s memo says benefits would be paid “in conjunction with the State’s unemployment insurance system.”

That means “states will have to set up a new way to add these payments to existing benefits,” NELP said in a statement.

Many states, including and especially Nevada, took an agonizingly long time setting up the new system needed to administer Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits. Now Nevada has to set up another one?

“It could take months for states to implement this,” said one NELP policy analyst.

Assuming Trump’s memo is deemed legal, and further  assuming Nevada could administer the benefits quickly and effectively, Nevadans wouldn’t get $400 unless the state paid 25 percent of it. Trump says states can do that with the money they got from the CARES Act.

Nevada last month cut more than a half-billion dollars from education, health and other programs because the money Nevada got from the CARES Act wasn’t enough to offset sharp revenue declines. It is inconceivable that Nevada could find however many tens (or more) of millions of dollars it would take to pay the benefits described in Trump’s memo —not even for the few weeks it would take before federal emergency disaster relief money runs out and the whole benefit ends anyway.

“This new $44 billion allocation of federal funding from the Disaster Relief Fund will not go far,” the NELP statement said, noting that “between its inception and August 1, FPUC has paid out nearly $247 billion. Even with a reduced federal cost of $300 per claimant per week, this amount will be exhausted within a few weeks of states even getting a system up and running to pay it.”

States with  “the most sophisticated systems” and enough money (Nevada has neither)  “may be able to stand up this program eventually,” NELP said. Others “will be less likely to see any of this money.”

Trump also Saturday signed an executive order and two memoranda to defer payroll tax cuts, pause federal student loan payments, and “consider” providing protections from evictions. Along with the unemployment memorandum, Trump wants people to believe that he is the man of action, that he is taking leadership.

The “actions” Trump announced Saturday demonstrate exactly the opposite. If the nation had a strong leader — someone who could make a deal — members of Congress in that leader’s party would have a clear pandemic relief agenda and would negotiate seriously with the other party to pass legislation. Instead, Senate Republicans are in disarray, as aimless as they are feckless.

So we get Trump playing Mighty Mouse at a golf course, singing Here I Come to Save the Day and touting ineffectual proposals and half-baked schemes designed not to provide the nation relief, but to provide Trump with some positive headlines (for a change).

Painful as it is to acknowledge, the best hope for Nevadans now is the same best hope the nation has had for weeks — that Senate Republicans get their heads in the game and Congress passes a serious relief bill.

Good luck.

Hugh Jackson
Editor | Hugh Jackson was editor of the Las Vegas Business Press, senior editor at the Las Vegas CityLife weekly newspaper, daily political commentator on the Las Vegas NBC affiliate, and author of the Las Vegas Gleaner political blog. Prior to moving to Las Vegas, he was a reporter and editor at the Casper (Wyoming) Star-Tribune.