President Joe Biden claimed last month that a law designed to help veterans pay for their education empowers him to forgive hundreds of billions of dollars in student loan debt. But former members of Congress who helped pass that law say the president is overstepping his authority and attempting "to radically change the student loan system."
Former House speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) and former Reps. Howard McKeon (R., Calif.) and John Kline (R., Minn.) said Biden is using the 2003 HEROES Act, which allows the Education Department to offer waivers to student financial aid recipients during a "national emergency," as a "pretext" to cancel $500 billion in loans, according to an amicus brief filed Friday at the Supreme Court. Both Republicans and Democrats, they say, acknowledged the law was not meant to "absolve borrowers who haven’t suffered hardship from the responsibilities they took on as borrowers." Instead, it was meant to aid service members in paying off student loans during the Iraq war.
"Public service, almost by definition, involves sacrifice," they wrote. "But as lawmakers, [we] wanted to repay the brave Americans who endure great personal hardship in service to their country with a modest protection against the distractions of administrative obligations arising from their student loans."
In January, Biden’s Justice Department petitioned the Court, saying the law gave Education Secretary Miguel Cardona "clear authorization" to cancel the student debt. The administration argues the coronavirus pandemic constitutes a "national emergency"—an argument which the authors of the HEROES bill reject, saying the phrase referred directly to the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
Neither the White House nor the Department of Education responded to a request for comment.
The cancellation could cost as much as $1 trillion over 10 years, the Penn Wharton Budget Model predicts. Former Obama economic adviser Jason Furman has called the plan "indefensible" and "reckless."
The Justice Department appealed after a series of lower courts’ rulings rejected the debt cancellation move, arguing "economically vulnerable borrowers" had been left in "limbo." Biden pledged the debt forgiveness as part of his 2020 presidential campaign.
The former lawmakers filed the amicus brief with Pacific Legal Foundation for Biden v. Nebraska and Dept. of Education v. Brown, two cases before the Court that concern the debt cancellation. The group noted in a press release that Biden’s Education Department did not follow typical rulemaking guidelines for federal agencies before moving to cancel the debt.
"The Biden administration’s use of the HEROES Act as a legal pretext for its debt cancellation has always been a farce," said Caleb Kruckenberg, an attorney at Pacific Legal Foundation. "The authors of the law confirm that fact."
Republican-led states and other conservative legal groups also sued the Biden administration over its student debt gambit. The Court will hear oral arguments for both cases on Feb. 28.