Last month, the Biden administration announced student loan forgiveness that would affect up to 43 million borrowers. With the country still facing runaway inflation, the economic impact of Biden’s plan has been at the forefront of Americans’ minds.
In the ensuing political tumult, one question has largely been pushed to the sidelines: Is Biden’s student loan forgiveness even constitutional? One would hope that in the freest country on Earth whose Constitution proclaims as among its aims to “secure the Blessings of Liberty” Americans would at least ask the question.
Biden’s plan to forgive student loan debt does, in fact, violate the Constitution. Democrats have claimed that the HEROES Act of 2003, passed in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attack, grants the Biden administration the legal authority to forgive student loans. This rationale is tenuous at best.
The HEROES Act does not provide unrestricted authority to forgive student debt. While it does provide that the Secretary of Education can “waive or modify any statutory or regulatory provision applicable” to student financial aid, it requires that this financial assistance be “in connection with a war or other military operation or national emergency.”
The Biden administration has labeled COVID-19 a national emergency as a pretext for student debt relief. There is no indication that the authors of the bill intended for the phrase “national emergency” to be used this loosely. On the contrary, the bill was passed into law as a response to the most devastating terrorist attack in the country’s history. A rapidly spreading disease for which there is an effective vaccine, especially considering nearly half of Americans have returned to their normal life before COVID, does not rise to the level of a national emergency that Congress had in mind almost two decades ago.
The Act also defines “affected individuals” who are eligible for aid as anyone who “resides or is employed in an area that is declared a disaster area by any Federal, State, or local official in connection with a national emergency” or “suffered direct economic hardship as a direct result of a war or other military operation or national emergency, as determined by the Secretary.” Biden’s Department of Justice determined that both of these conditions are met by the pandemic. However, COVID-19 was a worldwide crisis that affected various parts of the country to different extents. Surely, not every individual with federal student debt lived or worked in a “disaster area.”
Furthermore, Americans’ economic hardship was caused not by the pandemic itself but by the overbearing response to it. State and local governments forced businesses to stay shuttered, and employees who refused to get vaccinated were forced to leave their job.
Even if we accept the false premise that the HEROES Act of 2003 allows the Department of Education to forgive all federal student loans in response to the coronavirus pandemic, President Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan still does not hold up as being within the purview and authority of the executive branch. Congress possesses the power of the purse. Only the legislature may decide matters of federal funding or debt payment. The provision of the HEROES Act of 2003 that delegates this power to the executive branch is simply unconstitutional. Historically, the Supreme Court has ruled that the legislative branch may not delegate its lawmaking power to the executive branch. As the Court unanimously put it in 1935, “The Congress is not permitted to abdicate or to transfer to others the essential legislative functions with which it is thus vested.”
Forgiving student loans through the Department of Education is the latest in a generations-long effort to expand the power of the federal government. Whether it is Woodrow Wilson’s creation of the administrative state, the Second New Deal’s redefining of the relationship between the citizen and his government, Obamacare’s mandate which was wrongly upheld as a tax by the Court, or the use of an executive agency to forgive student debt; our federal government has consistently sought to expand its power beyond the limits imposed by the Constitution.
Many Americans’ silence on this matter is deafening. With such a flagrant violation of our constitutional system, it is greatly concerning that more Americans do not take notice as the federal government continually abridges the guardrails designed to protect the people from tyranny. Founding Father Benjamin Franklin reportedly described our government as “a republic, if you can keep it.” If Americans continue to be apathetic about whether the government acts within the bounds of the law, we may very well lose it.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.