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COVID-19 relief: Biden’s executive actions if a stimulus package doesn’t pass soon



How much aid could President-elect Joe Biden provide through executive orders?

Sarah Tew/CNET

When President-elect Joe Biden takes the oath of office on Jan. 20, he’ll begin his term with a collection of issues that he and his administration intend to quickly address. While Biden will look to Congress for help to pass laws on issues ranging from clean energy to immigration reform, if a coronavirus stimulus package doesn’t go through before Biden’s swearing in, there are some things he could immediately do before stimulus negotiations would begin again. (Here’s more on Biden’s stimulus plan, which could include a second check. Here’s what happens if a bill passes without another direct payment.)

If the Senate remains in Republican hands following the twin Georgia Senate runoff elections in January, Biden could follow the path President Donald Trump took in August — when he temporarily renewed enhanced unemployment aid, eviction protections and student-loan-interest deferrals after Congress failed to act — to quickly address specific areas of need.

The incoming administration has already identified a range of issues it could address through executive powers — including rejoining the Paris climate agreement and instituting new ethics guidelines for the White House — but Biden could also use an executive order or memo as a stop-gap before another bill were to come to a vote. 

(For more information, here’s what we know about when a second stimulus check could arrive, how much money it could bring to your specific household, and how the qualifications could change in another round.)

Here are four economic areas a Biden administration could potentially address through issuing executive orders.

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Authorize larger unemployment benefits for out-of-work Americans

Biden has outlined in his own economic stimulus plan an expansion of the weekly unemployment bonus authorized under the CARES Act. Trump in August signed an order extending unemployment benefits past a July 31 expiration, at a lower weekly level. Because the power to spend rests with Congress and not the President, Biden would need to find a funding source for the aid, much as Trump did in August when he tapped unused FEMA money for his extension.

(Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin closed off another source of funding for Biden’s potential executive action that had been available to the Federal Reserve to use emergency lending when he requested the Fed return to the Treasury unused funds from the program.)

Set a minimum wage, starting with workers on federal contracts

During Biden’s campaign, the incoming president talked about raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, up from the current $7.25 an hour. Without Congressional support, Biden will not be able to raise the federal minimum wage, but he could get part way there through an increase to the minimum wage of workers on federal contracts.

Biden could accomplish the increase through an executive order, according to Heidi Shierholz, a senior economist and the director of policy at the Economic Policy Institute. The hourly boost could affect the pay of 5 million workers, Shierholz estimated.


President-elect Joe Biden could look at extending unemployment aid.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Defer student loan payments without interest

With a deferment for student-loan repayments set to expire Dec. 31 along with the last remaining COVID-19 relief protections, Biden could follow in the steps Trump took last summer and extend the deferral into 2021. That means students could postpone making loan repayments until further into 2021.

Along with a short-term fix, Biden could also look at forgiving student loans, based on a plan he outlined in his Emergency Action Plan to Save the Economy, where he proposed cancelling a minimum of $10,000 for federal student loans. 

Renew the eviction moratorium for unpaid rent

If Congress doesn’t put a hold on evictions before the moratorium Trump enacted runs out on Dec. 31, Biden can also use an executive order to keep landlords from evicting their tenants for not paying rent during the pandemic. Tenants could still be evicted for other reasons.

The precedent set by Trump’s administration was to invoke a rare law exercised by the Centers for Disease Control aimed at limiting the spread of disease by keeping people in their homes and out of homeless shelters or from crossing state lines.

Some of what Biden will be able to quickly accomplish will depend on the Georgia Senate runoffs, which could potentially give Democrats a slim control of the Senate if both Democratic challengers win. 

With the inauguration less than two month away, here’s what we know about Biden’s plans to support the economyfive federal benefits that run out in December unless Congress acts, and where things stand on negotiating another economic rescue bill.

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