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Supreme Court prepares for battle over Biden student loan forgiveness

By Sarah May
|
February 28, 2023

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday will hear oral arguments on President Joe Biden's controversial plan to forgive varying amounts of federal student loans, and given the potentially high stakes involved, tensions surrounding the eventual outcome are reaching fever pitch, according to The Hill.

A significant number of demonstrators amassed outside the high court on Monday, with more set to arrive Tuesday as the justices consider the constitutionality of an administration’s giveaway, the cost of which some experts suggest could approach $500 billion.

Contours of Biden plan

As ABC News reported last summer, after much deliberation and delay, Biden announced a plan that was designed to fulfill – at least to some degree – promises he made on the presidential campaign trail to ease the financial burden of student borrowers by forgiving a set amount of loans owed by certain categories of debtors.

According to the plan, individuals who received Pell Grants designed for low-income borrowers would be eligible for up to $20,000 in student loan forgiveness, while debtors without Pell Grants could still receive up to $10,000 in forgiveness.

Eligibility for the debt reduction would be limited to individuals earning under $125,000 annually or households with combined income of under $250,000 in the 2020 or 2021 tax year.

In announcing the plan, Biden said, “An entire generation is now saddled with unsustainable debt in exchange for an attempt at least at a college degree. The burden is so heavy that even if you graduate, you may not have access to the middle-class life that the college degree once provided. The pandemic only made things worse.”

Authority questioned

In arguing for the validity of the student loan forgiveness program, the Biden administration partly contends that the six GOP-led states and the two individual borrowers now challenging the scheme lack legal standing to do so, but the justices will also be examining the question of whether the 2003 law known as the HEROES Act conferred on the executive branch the authority to forgive loan indebtedness the way the administration claims it does, as NPR notes.

The statute at issue was passed by Congress in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks and was designed to provide safeguards for federal student loan borrowers impacted by a national emergency, war, or other disaster, declaring that under such scenarios, the education secretary has the power to “waive or modify any statutory or regulatory provision” concerning government loan programs of this type.

Though the HEROES Act was invoked during the COVID-19 pandemic by then-President Donald Trump as well as Biden as a means to pause debt payments during the worst of the crisis, Biden has long since publicly declared the public health emergency over, while also lifting strict immigration restrictions under what is known as Title 42 orders due to an absence of a continued pandemic need for them, casting doubt on its merit as justification for permanent debt relief.

Opponents of the program claim that the HEROES Act, while providing a broad grant of authority to waive or modify aspects of federal loans during emergencies, does not give the president or the education secretary the authority to cancel obligations altogether without an additional act of Congress.

Activists mobilize

As The Hill notes, roughly 3,000 borrowers, activists, and protesters were expected to gather outside the Supreme Court ahead of Tuesday's oral arguments, with supporters of the forgiveness plan making their voices heard.

Temple University undergraduate student Kayla McMonagle felt it necessary to be present in the nation's capital, arguing, “this issue impacts our generation the most so far, and it will impact our children's generation and generations to come.”

A so-called “People's Rally,” organized by groups such as the NAACP, Debt Collective, and New Georgia Project was set to take place at the court, with activist Natalia Abrams declaring, “The People's Rally for Student Debt Cancellation is a powerful expression of our collective will to create a more just and equitable future. By coming together, we can ensure that the voices of those most affected by student debt are heard and that policymakers are able to take action.”

First-term Democratic Rep. Maxwell Frost (FL-10) – known as the first member of Gen Z to be elected to Congress – also appeared before the protesters, noting he was hoping for the best and bracing for the worst, saying, “I'm optimistic because I need to be, but I mean, we've seen the court come up with some disastrous decisions over the, obviously, the past year. And so I hold optimism because we have to in this moment, and I'm hoping they won't let us down. But I mean, we'll see.”

“Flimsy pretext” slammed

Far from persuaded by the activists' arguments, however, is Judicial Crisis Network president Carrie Severino, who wrote in an opinion piece for Fox News that the high court must step in to block what she describes as a “brazen breach of constitutional constraints" and an assault on the concept of separation of powers.

Severino contends that Biden's forgiveness plan amounts to “one of the largest expenditures in American history” and states that there is no “legal distinction between waiving payments owed to the government and affirmatively spending the treasury's money.”

In light the Constitution's Appropriations Clause that says, “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law,” she argues, Biden simply lacks the power he claims in this instance, and his use of the HEROES Act is nothing but a “flimsy statutory pretext.”

Whether the high court ultimately sides with the borrower-activists pushing for loan reductions or agrees with then-Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (CA-11), who said back in 2021 that the president does not have “the power for debt forgiveness,” only time will tell.