White House eyes executive action to keep unemployment benefits flowing

The White House is considering executive action to provide more money for unemployment benefits, following the exhaustion of funds made available by President Trump’s previous administrative maneuvering.

“We’re looking at all possible avenues to continue giving relief to Americans from an executive standpoint, in lieu of Democrats agreeing to a legislative deal,” said Ben Williamson, a senior adviser for Mark Meadows, Trump’s chief of staff.

Trump, through a memorandum in August, made available up to $44 billion from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Disaster Relief Fund to provide assistance to workers sidelined by the pandemic in the form of a $300-a-week federal boost to unemployment benefits, to be matched by $100 from state governments. The additional jobless aid is known as Lost Wages Assistance.

Over $30 billion of those dollars have already been distributed. With money running low, the agency has said that total funding will be limited to six weeks, in total, for every state that has applied so far, a spokesman told the Washington Examiner. The administration has had to start cutting off certain states, including Texas, Iowa, Montana, Tennessee, and New Hampshire.

The impetus behind Trump’s executive order on the enhanced payment was Congress’s inability to extend added unemployment benefits, which had been enacted in the March CARES Act at a rate of $600 a week. The program has been expired for over a month. Lawmakers in both parties support extending the enhanced benefit, but they have so far failed to agree on a dollar amount for the payment.

The White House is considering using an executive order to authorize FEMA to provide more assistance to states by making additional funds available to them through the $300-a-week federal boost to unemployment benefits, a former senior administration official said. This would allow more FEMA funds to be used after the current $44 billion is exhausted.

There is a fear, however, of overusing FEMA’s funds and leaving the agency vulnerable as it deals with hurricane season as well as the wildfires on the West Coast.

“I take what the administration is doing as a good-faith effort to give assistance to people who haven’t had work for many weeks,” said Matt Weidinger, a fellow who focuses on unemployment and poverty at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

“I’m sure every unemployed person would like to keep getting an additional $300 every week,” Weidinger said.

He said, however, that any potential executive actions to provide more unemployment aid could affect the incentives to return to work and would add to the debt in a harmful manner.

Until the $44 billion in additional unemployment aid is exhausted, FEMA will continue working with states to provide jobless help.

“On August 8, President Trump took decisive and unprecedented action to help unemployed Americans due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” FEMA press secretary Lizzie Litzow told the Washington Examiner. “FEMA continues to work with states and territories to fulfill their requests for six weeks of Lost Wages Assistance.”

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