On Sunday, after threatening a veto and possible government shutdown, President Donald Trump signed a $2.3 trillion bill providing pandemic relief and funding the government through September of next year. Had he signed it just one day earlier, however, millions of jobless Americans would have received an additional $300 payment in unemployment benefits.
In typical Trumpian fashion, the lead-up to signing this bill was chaotic. A day after Congress had passed the relief bill on Dec. 21, Trump posted a video on Twitter criticizing the relief package. He called for $2,000 stimulus checks for every American, rather than the $600 allotted in the bill, and demanded the removal of other provisions he considered “wasteful spending.” (It was reportedly Trump’s own treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, who had proposed the $600 amount during the administration’s negotiations with Congress.) Nevertheless, he was set to sign it into law on Christmas Eve at Mar-a-Lago, where he was spending the holiday. Yet he derailed Congress’ plans with a last-minute decision to stall the signing. Trump continued to blast the bill in the ensuing days, leading many to believe that the government was headed for a shutdown. A shutdown would have left Americans without crucial government services, including food and housing assistance, in the middle of a global crisis.
Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle—even those who supported Trump’s hypothetical version featuring $2,000 stimulus checks—urged the president to sign the bill as is. “We do need to get $2,000 out to every working-class individual in this country, $500 for their kids, but you can’t diddle around with the bill,” Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said. He recommended that Trump first approve the bill, and then separately get Congress to pass $2,000 direct payments as soon as possible. (The House is voting on this separate measure on Monday.) Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and David Perdue reportedly lobbied Trump to sign the bill through the weekend.
The president did ultimately end up avoiding a shutdown, signing the bill Sunday night. But his last-minute delays had consequences. The bill stipulated that $300-per-week unemployment benefits were supposed to start on Saturday and run for 11 weeks until March 14. But because Trump ended up authorizing the relief package 18 hours after that original start date, recipients will now only get 10 weeks of payments. The government will not give out benefits for weeks that begin before the bill was signed and the end date is still in mid-March. In addition, people in the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation programs likely won’t get their benefits for the final week of this year. Other relief payments are expected to be delayed for two to three weeks, as states need time to reconfigure their electronic benefits systems.
This is a particularly bad time to be withholding benefits. High rates of unemployment continue unabated in the country as coronavirus cases spike during the winter. Unemployment claims, numbering in the hundreds of thousands per week, reached a three-month high in December. An estimated 12 million Americans are subsisting on assistance programs from the CARES Act, which Congress passed in March. Economists expect the labor market to be cool until there is widespread vaccine distribution, potentially paving the way for hiring to start recovering in the second quarter of 2021.