Transferring hundreds of billions of dollars of student-loan debt—as Joe Biden is reportedly considering—would be unjust, indiscriminate, and remarkably irresponsible. It would force everyday Americans who didn’t take out those loans to shoulder their burden in the form of higher taxes or increased national debt (which, inevitably, leads to higher taxes). But none of this matters as much as the worst thing about such a potential action: It would be a naked violation of our constitutional forms, a move more monarchical than republican.
Both the Constitution and the founders’ writings make it clear that Congress has the power to make federal laws (subject to a presidential veto) and the power of the purse. Biden has neither, and yet he wishes to exercise both in this instance.
Even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has said, “People think that the president of the United States has the power for debt forgiveness. He does not. He can postpone. He can delay. But he does not have that power. That has to be an act of Congress.”
In case anyone missed the point, Pelosi added: “The president can’t do it. So that’s not even a discussion. Not everybody realizes that.”
Among those not realizing this fact is Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who last week called on Biden to transfer up to $50,000 per person in student-loan debt, from those who took out the loans and benefitted from them to those who didn’t. Recalling Barack Obama’s phone-and-pen presidency, Schumer said Biden could offer student debt relief with “the flick of a pen.”
Biden, sounding characteristically confused, said at a town hall earlier this year, “I’m prepared to write off the $10,000 debt, but not $50,000 . . . Because I don’t think I have the authority to do it by signing with a pen.”
Americans have become increasingly and disturbingly accepting of life under executive rule. During COVID, this was the norm rather than the exception, as executives—following the lead of narrow-minded public-health officials—repeatedly imposed lockdowns and mask and vaccine mandates. Legislatures, the closest representatives of the people, often passed laws to end such mandates. This indicated the broad public opposition to coercive decrees—because legislatures, unlike executives, generally track closer to the will of their citizenry.
Witness the recent Senate vote to end Biden’s mask mandate on airplanes, which was taken before a federal judge overturned that mandate. All but one of the five Democratic senators who face a tough reelection campaign this year—Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), and Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.)—voted with Republicans to overturn (by a tally of 57-40) Biden’s mandate. (Only one Republican voted to keep the mandate in place: Mitt Romney.)
If Biden can’t get his policy ideas through Congress—even though his party controls both chambers—it’s because his ideas aren’t popular. That’s not a sign that the constitutional system is broken and needs to be circumvented via executive fiat. It’s a sign that the system, with its checks and balances, is working. But now Biden is flirting with doing an unconstitutional end-run around those checks.
James Madison taught us that the separation of powers is one-half of the “double security” to our liberties (with the other half being federalism). Lincoln taught us that adherence to our constitutional forms is always more important than any single policy issue, no matter how momentous. Both were right.
As John Locke put it, a “Community” or “Society” may choose to “put the powers of making Laws . . . into the hands of one Man, and then it is a Monarchy.” He elaborated, “For the Form of Government depending upon the placing [of] the Supreme Power, which is the Legislative . . . such is the Form of the Common-wealth” (italics in original).
If Biden acts unilaterally and usurps the power of Congress, it would be further evidence of the Democratic Party’s drift away from working-class Americans and toward the college-educated. It would make all those who worked hard to pay back their student loans and now get to take on a share of the burden of others’ loans look like suckers (albeit honorable ones). It will be an example of gross public irresponsibility (adding to our $30 trillion national debt) while encouraging rampant private irresponsibility in the future (as people take out “loans” they have no intention of ever repaying). Worst of all, it would be a violation of our republican form of government.