SNEAD: The Supreme Court Puts a Stop to Biden’s Power Grab


Saturday, July 1, 2023

Last August, with the stroke of a pen, the Biden administration unilaterally ordered the cancellation of over 400 billion dollars of federal student loans. Legal scholars and laymen alike lambasted the decision from the outset. Beyond the highly questionable policy rationale for bailing-out wealthy Americans with useless graduate degrees, Biden’s decision immediately came under legal scrutiny. After all, it’s Congress that has the power of the purse, and when the Executive spends nearly half a trillion dollars without congressional approval, it raises eyebrows. 

However, in 2023, it seems like the United States is often governed more by Executive Orders than actual legislation. Ever since President Obama introduced the country to his pen-and-phone approach to solving immigration, multiple presidents have been willing to subvert the authority of Congress whenever the People’s representatives disagree with them.

Congress won’t grant amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants? It doesn’t matter, just use an Executive Order. Congress won’t pay for your border wall? Not a problem, just declare an emergency and try to build it yourself. 

Learning from his predecessors, Biden used the same rationale for forgiving student debt. Yesterday, the Supreme Court finally put its foot down. 

Six states challenged the Biden administration’s authority to unilaterally cancel the debt. In response, Biden pointed to the HEROS Act, a 2003 law that gave the Secretary of Education the power to alter federal student loan provisions. The text of the law states, under circumstances of military conflict or another national emergency, the Education Secretary could “waive or modify” rules governing student loans. The Biden administration argued that this language gave them the authority to cancel 430 billion dollars in student loan debt in the wake of the pandemic emergency.

As a matter of fact, the HEROS Act gave the Biden administration no such power. Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the majority, explains that a 430 billion dollar debt cancellation goes far beyond what the term modify permits: “Prior to the COVID–19 pandemic, ‘modifications’; issued under the Act implemented only minor changes, most of which were procedural.” Instead, Roberts notes, the debt-cancellation plan goes far beyond modifying the pre-existing federal student loan provisions: “it has abolished them and supplanted them with a new regime entirely.” To a layman, it might seem that the term waive gives the Education Secretary more latitude to forgive debt. However, the government conceded that waive, as used in the HEROS Act, did not apply to waiving the loans themselves. 

Nevertheless, a charitable observer might chalk this difference up to a simple misreading of statute. But it’s worth considering the HEROs Act is hardly six pages long and passed by Congress almost unanimously. Not the characteristics you’d expect for legislation that supposedly gives the Executive Branch such broad authority. Roberts also made sure to point out that President Biden publicly declared “‘the pandemic is over’” just weeks after using the coronavirus pandemic as an emergency justification for canceling the debt. Even back in 2021, Nancy Pelosi recognized that the Executive could not unilaterally make such a sweeping decision. 

In reality, this was an illegal power grab. The Biden administration found a tiny, quarter-sized hole in the law and tried to drive a half-trillion-dollar truck through it.  

Of course, progressives across the nation attacked the ruling. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar sounded off, tweeting: “So $70k average PPP loan forgiveness is just fine, but $10-20k student loan forgiveness is not.” 

This response is amusing for a couple of reasons. First, policy disagreements aside, the Paycheck Protection Plan was passed by Congress, unlike Biden’s student loan bailout. Second, it’s especially rich to see a member of Congress complaining that the Supreme Court struck down this Executive decision. Remember, if Congresswoman Omar and her colleagues had passed a bill forgiving the student debt, there would be no issue for the Supreme Court to resolve. If progressive members of Congress want student debt to be canceled, they’re responsible for legislating and they can get to work.

And that’s what this decision was all about. The Supreme Court put the ball is back in Congress’s court, which is where it belongs.

Ben Snead lives in Portland, Oregon, and is pursuing an undergraduate degree in Political Science at the University of Oregon's Clark Honors College. During his free time, Ben enjoys going on hikes and road trips in the Pacific Northwest.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.

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About Ben Snead

Ben Snead lives in Portland, Oregon, and is pursuing an undergraduate degree in Political Science at the University of Oregon's Clark Honors College. During his free time, Ben enjoys going on hikes and road trips in the Pacific Northwest.

ben.snead on Instagram @ben.snead

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