POLITICS

What Pandemic? Trump Administration Presses Forward With Long-Term Benefit Cuts.

The "whole-of-government" approach to the coronavirus doesn't pause President Donald Trump's anti-welfare agenda.

Congress is working on an unprecedented plan to send more than $1,000 to practically everyone in America to blunt the economic devastation of the coronavirus pandemic.

But the prospect of massive economic disruption won’t stop the Trump administration’s long-planned cuts to social programs such as nutrition assistance ― cuts that have been a core part of the president’s domestic policy agenda and that would make life harder for the poorest Americans. 

During the first three years of Donald Trump’s presidency, Congress refused to go along with cutting benefits that help people with low incomes afford food, housing and medical care. Undaunted, the Trump administration has been busily issuing regulations that cut benefits without congressional buy-in, through a number of government agencies. 

Now, even as the coronavirus toll rises and the economy crashes, and Congress lines up an array of cash payments to American households, those regulations are still coming. 

The Social Security Administration is “still going full-steam ahead” on new rules limiting disability benefits, according to a source in the agency. One set of proposed changes to the claims process could affect hundreds of thousands of applicants each year if finalized. The agency previously said to expect the new rule in June; spokespeople did not respond to requests for comment. 

The Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Housing and Urban Development will continue their regular rulemaking processes, according to spokespeople. Pending rules include a January proposal to reduce automatic reenrollment in health coverage, and a draft rule that would make it harder for renters to sue landlords for racial discrimination. 

“While the health and safety of the American people continues to be our highest priority, the Department of Housing and Urban Development remains committed to serving those that rely on HUD’s resources and fulfilling its mission through these difficult times,” a HUD spokesperson said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has said it will comply with a recently passed law suspending limits on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits for unemployed adults for the duration of the coronavirus crisis. The law effectively halted a regulation that would have taken effect next month, cutting benefits for 700,000 annually. 

“We are going to comply with the legislation which really pauses that during this public health emergency,” USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said last week. (A federal judge also issued an injunction halting the rule’s implementation.) 

Nutrition assistance enrollment will rise automatically as people lose their incomes and become eligible for benefits, and the department has taken steps to make sure schools can still feed kids even if their cafeterias are closed. 

But there are two other SNAP cuts pending, and USDA spokespeople declined to say whether the department still planned to finalize an eligibility change that would shrink enrollment by about 3 million. The USDA has previously said it would publish a final version of the rule in May. 

Trump initially downplayed the coronavirus threat, and only advised federal agencies to maximize telework among their employees last week, after  thousands of cases had been confirmed across the country. 

One USDA employee described agency operations as business as usual this week, saying he’d been deemed “essential” and required to come to the office even though he works in an “insect-rearing facility that is in no way an essential position to the health, safety, and protection of human lives.”

A White House spokesperson declined to comment on the regulatory process. A spokesperson for the Office of Management and Budget, which oversees regulations, did not respond to requests for comment. 

The idea of cutting benefits is counter to the policy objectives that Republicans, Democrats and the Trump administration all said they agree are necessary amid the economic shutdown that public health experts say is necessary to curb the spread of the virus. Trump, after downplaying the coronavirus threat, adopted what the White House called a “whole of government” response earlier this month.

But the trillion-dollar stimulus efforts are a short-term policy; the regulatory benefit cuts are supposed to be permanent. And the president said Monday that he hoped things would start getting back to normal soon, despite recommendations from public health experts that Americans continue “social distancing” for weeks or months.

“America will again and soon be open for business, very soon, a lot sooner than three or four months, as somebody was suggesting,” Trump said. “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself.”

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