Student Loan Update: One Doctrine Could Unravel Biden's Relief Plan

One particular line of questioning could see President Joe Biden's plan for student loan relief undone by the Supreme Court.

Oral arguments in the legal battle surrounding the president's ambitious $400 billion debt relief plan will begin before Supreme Court judges on Tuesday. Legal experts speaking with outlets like USA Today said that the case is much broader than political and economic arguments about loan forgiveness, encompassing major arguments about the extent and limitations of powers held by the Court and the president.

One tactic utilized by the Supreme Court in the past is known as the "Major Questions Doctrine" and concerns federal courts striking attempts by government agencies to enact major policies without the involvement of Congress. The doctrine can apply to policies, decisions, and regulations that have a significant impact on the economy, or which have a general political significance. Last summer, for example, the Supreme Court struck down an attempt by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate power plant emissions.

For its part, the White House has argued that the "Major Questions Doctrine" does not apply to Biden's loan forgiveness plan, since, under federal law, the government is empowered to alter loan laws in the face of emergencies impacting the finances of American citizens, like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Joe Biden Student Debt
President Joe Biden is seen. The president's student loan relief program will go before the Court starting on Tuesday. Getty

Others, however, argue that the law makes no specific reference to the ability to "forgive" loans, as Biden's plan calls for. Christopher Walker, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School, told USA Today on Sunday that it's hard to see the Supreme Court not striking down the plan, should the doctrine come into play.

"It's teed up pretty well," Walker said. "It's really hard to escape the conclusion that the Biden administration is using an old statute that was passed to deal with something different in a really broad, expansive way."

Newsweek reached out to the White House for comment.

Biden first unveiled his long-anticipated student loan forgiveness plan last year, after promising to address the issue on the 2020 campaign trial. Under the plan, most borrowers would be eligible to have $10,000 of their outstanding debt forgiven, while those who received a Pell Grant, a federal subsidy for lower-income students, would be eligible for $20,000.

Republicans, who have long argued against any form of student loan forgiveness, decried Biden's plan and accused his administration of overstepping its authority by not involving Congress in the decision. Lawsuits filed against the plan by six Republican-controlled states—Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and South Carolina— led to it being temporarily blocked by a federal judge in October, and set it on a path to the Supreme Court.

The Court's decision on the plan is expected by the end of the year. Student loan payments have been paused multiple times since the start of the pandemic and are currently set to resume on June 30, pending further postponements from Biden.