While Congress Leads on Coronavirus, Trump Only Follows

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04 april 2020, 15.02

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It’s still early, but I think we can already say that Donald Trump is totally failing when it comes to economic leadership during the coronavirus recession. 

The thing about the 10 million — 10 million! — people who have filed for unemployment in the last two weeks is that everyone has seen this coming for some time. Indeed, it is to Congress’s credit that it rapidly passed three bills to provide at least some relief. 

And where has the president been? Mostly AWOL. The administration didn’t ask for what Congress supplied. At one point early on, Trump expressed amazement that Congress would actually furnish more than he had asked for (as if it hadn’t ever spent more than his budgets asked for throughout his presidency).

Trump has been, at best, in a purely reactive posture. He did have one suggestion for the “Phase Three” economic relief bill that Congress finished last week. But he received little or no support for his suggested payroll tax holiday in part because it seemed irrelevant to a situation in which the government was pushing businesses to shut down temporarily.

In a normal administration, the White House would propose legislation. That’s not happening here. He also seemed weirdly focused on bailing out the cruise lines — perhaps an indication that he wasn’t aware of the depth of the damage to the economy that was certain to arrive. 

And all this was going on (or not going on) when he was upsetting and confusing the markets with oddball tweets.

Yes, the administration deserves credit for negotiating the final bill on behalf of congressional Republicans. Even there, however, it’s likely that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wanted Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to do the bargaining because McConnell didn’t trust Trump to back up a congressionally negotiated deal.

And now we’re already seeing problems in implementing the various relief bills. In particular, the extremely important small-business loan program, designed both to keep those businesses afloat and to keep millions of workers employed, seems to be off to a chaotic start and remains uncertain after one day in action. Even if the trouble administering the program can be worked out, Trump failed to publicize it very much — meaning that many small businesses haven't been aware it was coming. 

This is important because businesses in the process of making tough decisions might have been able to hold out longer, and keep people on payrolls longer, if they were confident that help was on the way. Trump should have been trumpeting that right at the top of his daily press sessions, but he didn’t until Thursday. 

It looks like more of the same problems will affect Phase 4 of the economic response. The urgent need now is still for relief — extending help to individuals and businesses since the lockdown is going to be in effect longer, and adding a lot more assistance for state and local governments, which are burdened with extra responsibilities just as their revenues collapse.

Trump is prematurely talking about infrastructure projects, which in most cases will need to wait until after the lockdowns are over. And it’s not as if he has a bill ready to enact anyway. 

His real passion seems to be for a revival of the three-martini lunch -- that is, the deductions for meals and entertainment that were phased out by tax-law changes that sought to eliminate special treatment for certain types of business activity. While going back to the old system would probably be a long-run boon for anyone who happens to be in the hotel and resort business, it’s obviously not at all relevant to the current problems that restaurants and travel-related industries are having. 

In any case, House and Senate Republicans are resisting any Phase 4 bill at all right now, and it doesn’t seem as if Trump is doing anything to convince them of the dire need for it, either for the economy or for Republican election chances in November. It’s not clear what those congressional Republicans are thinking. Perhaps the inaction is based on knee-jerk ideology; perhaps they just don’t understand the seriousness of the economic situation.

Trump? He likes the idea of big, unprecedented action, which is a perfect match for the current situation. But in three-plus years, he still doesn't appear have any idea how the government works, what he’s supposed to do to make things happen, or anything about the economy outside of how it affects him personally.

If he did, he would have a large relief bill drafted. He’d be demanding that Congress return and act on it immediately. And he’d be hard at work on the large stimulus bill to follow. So far, there’s no sign of any of that. And time is running out. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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