Is Student Loan Forgiveness Constitutional? You may gain from the forgiveness of student loan debt, but the Constitution could suffer.
The U.S. Supreme Court is primed to decide the future of student loan debtors. Millions of Americans are suffering under the load of outstanding student loans valued at $400 billion. This is a substantial economic problem for many people. However, the manner in which the Biden administration has based its policy is a cause of concern for adherents of the legislative branch who believe spending proposals should be based on bills from Congress instead of executive fiat from presidential rulings based on existing laws.
Providing More Context
First some more background. The Biden plan would forgive up to $10,000 for people making $125,000 and below or for households that make $250,000 and below. If you received a Pell grant for the program for low-income assistance in college tuition, you could get another $10,000 written off.
This Is a Substantial Decision
This would mean that 43 million people could apply for debt relief and 20 million would have their entire debt paid off. It would be an expensive action. The Congressional Budget Office has determined that the operation would cost $400 billion over the next 30 years.
Two Lawsuits Are In Question
But this plan is being questioned in two cases, one involving a lawsuit brought by six states and another that is between two people. Both lawsuits argue that the Biden administration did not go through the proper channels, the legislative branch, to pass the student loan forgiveness proposal. Instead, the policy is being brokered by another existing law. After lower federal court wrangling on these issues, the Supreme Court got involved.
Can the HEROES Act Be Used for Presidential Authority?
The Biden administration is relying on a previous statute called the Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students Act, or HEROES Act. This was designed for military personnel after 9/11 to help them avoid financial harm during times of emergency. The Department of Education believes that this law can be used to substantiate another national emergency – this time with student loan debt during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Potential Violation of Separation of Powers
The Supreme Court is examining whether the parties have legal standing to file the case in the first place and whether the HEROES Act is sufficiently written to include the Covid-19 situation as a national emergency that would allow the forgiveness of student loans without additional action by Congress. The court is also looking at whether President Biden has gone beyond his authority that would be unconstitutional because it violates the essence of separation of powers.
Conservative Justices Are Pushing Back
The Conservative majority has ruled in previous cases that “This jurisprudential theory officially aims to prevent the federal bureaucracy from implementing sweeping policy changes on the basis of interpretations of existing law,” Eric Levits of New York Magazine wrote. The Court’s conservative majority has repeatedly argued that decisions of vast “economic and political significance” should be up to Congress.
Executive Branch Over-reach
Unless the federal agency has permission from a separate legislative act, it would be overstepping its boundaries should it depend on another existing law such as the HEROES Act to substantiate its actions, in this case student loan forgiveness.
Defies ‘Major Question’ Doctrine
If the Court ruled in favor of the Biden administration it could set precedent for a broader interpretation of executive authority over Congress and one could argue that this would violate Constitutional principles of separation of powers.
The Chief Justice John Roberts court has often struck down cases such as these that entail “major questions” without Congressional authority. Roberts has been skeptical of the federal government’s arguments in the student loan cases. He has said that the debt forgiveness plan affects too many people with too much monetary expenditure by the federal government to not come from Congress.
Other conservative justices are expected to side with Roberts, and even if one of those conservatives took on the government’s view, that would not be enough for the Court to rule in favor of student loan forgiveness. Biden will thus have to pursue a legislative fix on Capitol Hill and with Republicans in control of the House of Representatives, it doesn’t look like the passage of the student loan policy is likely to make it through Congress should it fail in the Supreme Court.
Author Expertise and Experience
Serving as 19FortyFive’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.