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Court’s Student-Loan Decision Is Not Legally Controversial

Sheng Li
Litigation Counsel

July 11, 2023

The Supreme Court typically waits until the end of a term before releasing its most impactful and controversial decisions. This term’s final decision was Biden v. Nebraska, which held that President Biden lacks authority to spend half a trillion dollars to cancel federal student-loan debt. The decision was undoubtedly impactful — it stopped a program that would have cost more than $3,000 per taxpayer. But it was not even a little bit legally controversial.

To be sure, debt relief for relatively well-off college graduates is politically fraught. But Nebraska’s legal reasoning was not about the wisdom or content of Biden’s debt-relief program. Rather, it boiled down to the simple question of who has the authority to enact such a program — the president or Congress?

On that count, the term’s final decision may have been its easiest to resolve on the merits. The court merely restated what then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi explained two years ago: “People think that the president of the United States has the power for debt forgiveness. He does not. … That has to be an act of Congress.”

Pelosi’s statement is grounded in what schoolchildren around the country once learned in civics class: the Constitution separates power between the legislative, executive and judicial branches. Only Congress (the legislative branch) may write laws to create new federal programs, and only Congress may appropriate taxpayer dollars to pay for those programs. The president (the executive branch) may not exercise those powers. This separation of powers is no mere formality. Rather, the Framers knew that if the president exercised legislative and spending powers without authorization by elected members of Congress, he would be no different from a king who dispenses public funds to his cronies.

Thus, any student who paid attention in civics class would know that only Congress may rewrite student-loan laws to cancel a debt, and only Congress may spend hundreds of billions to pay for that cancellation. Biden certainly knew. That is why he repeatedly asked Congress to cancel student debt through legislation. Only after Congress declined did he claim executive power to act unilaterally. But if he had unilateral authority all along, why ask Congress in the first place?

Pelosi’s July 2021 explanation that the president lacks the power to unilaterally cancel student-loan debt was decidedly uncontroversial. Neither the White House nor legal scholars nor media outlets disputed her claim. Even after Biden announced his debt-cancellation plan, progressives did not rush to defend its legality on the merits. They instead argued that no one had standing — a legal concept that prevents parties who did not suffer a concrete injury from suing — to challenge the clearly illegal plan in court. If true, there would have been a loophole in the Constitution that any president could exploit to exercise legislative and spending powers he knows to be forbidden.

The Supreme Court held in Nebraska that no such loophole exists. Its legal reasoning rests on the uncontroversial principle that the president cannot unilaterally dispense massive sums to a favored constituency — here, college graduates. Any controversy should instead focus on Biden’s decision to abandon that principle when it became politically expedient, thus violating his solemn oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Nebraska’s impact extends beyond saving $3,000 per taxpayer — although that is significant by itself. Six Supreme Court justices upheld their duty to preserve the Constitution’s separation of powers, and they stopped a president who tried to be king.

Originally Published in DC Journal