Yesterday, for the first time in months, American renters went without a key protection against eviction. An executive order issued under former President Donald Trump and sustained by current President Joe Biden, which imposed a federal moratorium on the eviction of tenants by their landlords, expired Saturday night. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Americans face the possibility of eviction in the next several weeks.
Perhaps there is some room for legitimate debate to be had about whether a moratorium was the right policy for the executive branch to pursue. For the record, this author believes it was and is. There seems to be rather little, however, as to whether it is a good thing that hundreds of thousands of Americans could be turned out onto the streets at a moment when homelessness is already at a peak and a new, more transmissible COVID variant is raging across the country.
But this isn’t just a story of a tragic and impending housing crisis—it’s a story about a dearth of political courage, one which implicates all three branches of government and shows in painful light what happens when our elected leaders trade their spines in for the comfort of inaction. It starts in the spring of 2020, as the pandemic just began to make its mark. Congress passed the CARES Act, a provision of which was a moratorium on evictions. As cases temporarily lapsed in the summer, however, Congress allowed the moratorium and other CARES provisions to expire.
In the fall, under pressure to deliver some material benefits to Americans and rescue his failing pitch for reelection, Mr. Trump renewed the moratorium by executive order. A brief period in which the moratorium again received congressional backing in the winter notwithstanding, it has largely stood intact under President Joe Biden’s administration solely on the grounds of executive prerogative.
This became a problem early this summer, when the Supreme Court questioned the executive branch’s behavior. The court barely ruled in favor of the program, but Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the swing vote in the case, suggested that he would change his position if the moratorium were renewed without the backing of Congress. In response, the Biden administration tried to shore up an Emergency Rental Assistance Fund, but—unsurprisingly, given the history of the United States’ underfunded and fragmented administration of social welfare—the program only delivered about 7 percent, or $3 billion of the $45 billion budgeted for aid.
Evident in the above is already a fair amount of buck-passing, all of which should be beneath elected leaders with a bare amount of public virtue. But it was not until the past few days that public officials began to frantically—and truly pathetically—dodge responsibility. When it became apparent, mere days before the moratorium was set to expire, that the Emergency Rental Assistance funds would not be distributed in time, Mr. Biden requested that Congress act, and attempted to shame local and state governments into enforcing their own moratoriums. In turn, the House of Representatives made a show effort to renew the moratorium and promptly went on a seven-week recess without a vote. In one of the most shameful acts of the saga, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tweeted this yesterday, after progressives in her caucus spent the night outside the Capitol demanding that the House be called back into session to hold a vote:
Ms. Pelosi has demanded that the executive branch—which has almost assuredly lost its legal standing to renew the moratorium—ignore the court. Presumably Ms. Pelosi knows that some members of her caucus are facing pressure from landlords in their districts but do not quite have the gall to go on the record against the moratorium. She herself does not have the courage to put them on the spot.
While it may be possible to hide behind the institutions of our democracy to avoid shouldering responsibility, doing so only misdirects anger and dissatisfaction at democracy rather than individual, cowardly politicians. Rather than allow this to happen, it’s time for them to own up to their politics, show a little courage, and quit using institutional complexities like the relationship between the courts and the executive to obscure their own weaknesses.