Conservatives justices on the U.S. Supreme Court took aim at President Joe Biden’s plan for canceling some $400 billion in student loans and sticking taxpayers with the bill, implying Congressional approval may be required.
In August, Biden announced that the Department of Education, under Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, would unilaterally cancel up to $20,000 in unpaid loans for 40 million borrowers. The administration claimed the plan legal under the HEROES Act of 2003, enacted during the Iraq war to offer relief to service members and their families by temporarily freezing their student loans during times of war or national emergency.
Chief Justice John Roberts pointed out that in 2020, the high court blocked the Trump administration from unilaterally eliminating the Obama-era DREAMers program, insisting he had to get Congress’ approval. Justice Clarence Thomas said Cardona’s order “runs into Congress’ appropriations authority.”
The issues before the Court in Biden v. Nebraska are whether six states have standing to challenge the plan and whether the plan exceeds Cardona’s statutory authority or is arbitrary.
The HEROES Act permits the secretary of education to waive or modify student-loan requirements for people residing or working in a disaster area related to a war or national emergency. U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar, arguing for the Biden administration argued that the COVID pandemic qualifies as such a circumstance.
But the authors of the legislation, official named the Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students (HEROES) Act, Congressmen Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-CA) and John Kline (R-MN), a 25-year veteran of the Marines, never intended their legislation to be used as a means of blanket cancellation of loans.
The HEROES Act never authorized loan forgiveness, but did give the secretary of education authority to freeze loan payments for students whose education was interrupted by military service.
Biden’s plan violated the HEROES Act in several ways according to an amicus brief filed by Pacific Legal Foundation. In addition to the act not authorizing complete loan forgiveness, it also bars any action that could “impair the integrity of the student financial assistance programs,” the foundation argued. The brief also noted that the Biden policy makes no effort to isolate borrowers who can show they suffered economic harm as a “direct result” of the pandemic, and pointed out that there has been a moratorium on payments since it began.
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Justice Neil Gorsuch has signaled previously that he, too, will rein in the Executive Branch if he believes it has overstepped its authority.
“When Congress seems slow to solve problems, it may be only natural that those in the Executive Branch might seek to take matters into their own hands,” wrote last year in an opinion limiting Executive Branch powers. “But the Constitution does not authorize agencies to use pen-and-phone regulations as substitutes for laws passed by the people’s representatives.”