A federal appeals court has rejected a request from the Biden administration to go forward with its student loan forgiveness program.
In a ruling Wednesday, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a decision issued last month by U.S. District Judge Mark Pittman of Texas that the program overstepped President Joe Biden’s constitutional limits and put it on hold, according to The Washington Post.
The decision by a three-judge panel allows the hold to remain in place until the 5th Circuit schedules a full hearing on the case.
The Biden White House is also facing another lawsuit in which it has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reject an 8th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that has barred the program, according to Reuters.
The Post noted that in its filing to the Supreme Court about the 8th Circuit’s decision, the Justice Department indicated it would appeal the 5th Circuit decision to the Supreme Court as well if it goes against the administration.
Biden announced in an executive order in August that his administration would forgive up to $10,000 in student loan debt for individuals making less than $125,000 a year, or couples whose incomes are below $250,000. Pell Grant recipients were eligible for up to $20,000 in debt forgiveness under Biden’s order.
The Congressional Budget Office has estimated the plan would cost $400 billion, according to Reuters.
Although forgiveness is uncertain, the Biden administration has put repayment on hold, extending a freeze on payments that began during the COVID-19 pandemic. Payments had been scheduled to resume Dec. 31.
In his decision, Pittman wrote that the program was an executive branch power grab based on the 2003 Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students Act (or HEROES ACT). The act, passed in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, “gave the administration authority to forgive student loan debt in association with military operations or national emergencies,” USA Today reported.
The Biden administration’s rationale is that the COVID pandemic is a national emergency that justifies the loan forgiveness program. Pittman’s ruling wasn’t buying it.
“The Constitution vests ‘all legislative powers’ in Congress. This power, however, can be delegated to the executive branch. But if the executive branch seeks to use that delegated power to create a law of vast economic and political significance, it must have clear congressional authorization. If not, the executive branch unconstitutionally exercises ‘legislative powers’ vested in Congress,” he wrote.
“In this case, the HEROES Act— a law to provide loan assistance to military personnel defending our nation—does not provide the executive branch clear congressional authorization to create a $400 billion student loan forgiveness program.”
Pitman’s decision noted that the HEROES Act “does not mention loan forgiveness. If Congress provided clear congressional authorization for $400 billion in student loan forgiveness via the HEROES Act, it would have mentioned loan forgiveness. The Act allows the Secretary only to ‘waive or modify’ provisions of title IV.”
Pittman granted that the COVID-19 pandemic might meet the act’s definition of a national emergency, but noted in his ruling that Biden himself has declared that the pandemic is over.
Pittman closed with a lesson in governing.
“Whether the Program constitutes good public policy is not the role of this Court to determine. Still, no one can plausibly deny that it is either one of the largest delegations of legislative power to the executive branch, or one of the largest exercises of legislative power without congressional authority in the history of the United States,” he wrote.
“In this country, we are not ruled by an all-powerful executive with a pen and a phone. Instead, we are ruled by a Constitution that provides for three distinct and independent branches of government,” he wrote.
“As President James Madison warned, ‘[t]he accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.’ THE FEDERALIST NO. 47,” Pittman wrote.
“The Court is not blind to the current political division in our country. But it is fundamental to the survival of our Republic that the separation of powers as outlined in our Constitution be preserved. And having interpreted the HEROES Act, the Court holds that it does not provide ‘clear congressional authorization’ for the Program proposed by the Secretary,” Pittman wrote.