Donald Trump relents and signs an economic-relief bill
IN JUST OVER three weeks Joe Biden will become America’s 46th president. Until then, however, it is his attention-seeking predecessor who is desperate to remain the centre of the national political conversation. Donald Trump’s refusal, until late on Sunday, to sign a covid-relief bill passed by Congress was set to inflict economic hardship on millions who risked unemployment benefits. Because the legislation was combined with the $1.4trn public-funding bill, its failure might also have forced the closure of the federal government, beginning on Tuesday December 29th.
Before his last minute change of heart, Mr Trump’s stance on the relief bill surprised even members of his own administration. Steven Mnuchin, his Treasury Secretary, had appeared to represent Mr Trump in talks on it with Democrats and Republicans in Congress. He called the bill “fabulous” after it passed on December 21st with bipartisan support. At a cost of $900bn it will send one-off relief payments of $600 to most Americans and extend weekly unemployment top-up payments of $300 until mid-March (a reduced rate from the allowance set by the CARES act earlier this year). In addition, as with the CARES act, gig-workers and the self-employed, who are not traditionally covered by pay-outs, can claim some relief. Democrats had sought larger one-off payments but Republicans, insisting that costs be kept down, forced the limit of $600.
Why Mr Trump relented is not currently clear. Perhaps even he balked at sowing such chaos. Just before he set off for Christmas at Mar-a-Lago, his resort in Florida, the president called the 5,593-page bill a “disgrace”, saying he instead wanted relief payments of $2,000 not the “ridiculously low” $600 per person, and alleging that the joint bill is crammed with “billions of dollars in ‘pork’” such as supposedly unjustified aid payments to foreign countries, including Belize, Egypt and Pakistan. His delay in signing meant an estimated 10m recipients (perhaps as many as 14m) of special pandemic-era unemployment relief missed at least some payments. In addition, a moratorium on landlords evicting tenants who have not paid rent, that was due to expire on December 31st, was in danger. Mr Biden on December 26th, referring to his predecessor’s inaction, said the “abdication of responsibility has devastating consequences.″
In a statement after signing the bill, Mr Trump said that Congress should look again at higher payouts. Though that might prove popular with his most ardent supporters—and thus help him to retain influence over his party even after leaving office—his demand looks disingenuous. He had shown no interest in recent weeks in details of the relief bill, preferring to raise funds and fire up his supporters by making hundreds of false claims that the presidential election he lost was rigged, and to issue presidential pardons for various friends, supporters and donors who had broken the law. In reality his delay in signing the bill looked like a means of remaining in the public eye while inflicting discomfort on congressional Republicans who had negotiated the deal. These notably included moderate senators, such as Mitt Romney, who have shown some independence from him. Mr Trump was also unconcerned about crossing Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, because Mr McConnell has acknowledged Mr Biden’s presidential-election victory.
There may now, at least, be some cheer for the many hurt by the economic fall-out of the pandemic. Official estimates suggest Americans’ average personal income and consumer spending have been falling in recent months, just as many small businesses are struggling because of pandemic lockdowns and as applications for unemployment benefits remain high. The failure to roll out public funds for the covid bill would have meant consumer spending and economic activity falling further. A federal shutdown would also have added to uncertainty.
For Mr Biden’s incoming administration there are two concerns. One is a matter of running down the clock while Mr Trump finds more ways to stir up controversy in his remaining weeks. One date to watch is January 5th, when Georgia votes in two run-off elections, which will decide the majority in the Senate. Another is the next day, when Congress holds a joint session for its formal certification of Mr Biden as the incoming president. This process, to be overseen by Vice-President Mike Pence, is traditionally nothing but a formality. But Mr Trump’s most ardent supporters, the bitter-enders of his party, see a chance to protest about the alleged illegitimacy of Mr Biden’s victory. That will go nowhere, but Trumpists see a chance to signal their continued loyalty to the man who lost the presidency but remains popular with the party’s voters.
The other concern for Mr Biden is whether the difficulty in passing this covid-relief bill casts light on hopes for a subsequent, larger stimulus package in the new year. In some Democratic circles, the deal was accepted as a relatively modest, stop-gap measure in the expectation that incoming members of Congress would set to work on a much bigger stimulus plan for Mr Biden to sign in the next few months. That, however, would need at least acquiescence from congressional Republicans. Mr Trump’s grandstanding may have made them warier than ever of doing anything that smacks of compromise.
Editor’s note: this piece has been altered to reflect Donald Trump’s belated signing of the bill on December 27th