Upon winning the 2020 election, President Biden moved to implement a campaign promise of canceling some student loan debt for those under a certain income level. He based his authority to do so on the 2003 HEROES Act, which gave the Secretary of Education the authority to alter student loan programs during national emergencies. Biden cited the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic national emergency as justification for the cancellation, and he ordered the Secretary of Education to implement the policy.
Nebraska and other states sued, arguing that the policy violated the HEROES Act by giving too much power to the Secretary of Education, a member of the executive branch. They argued that Congress had not allocated the Secretary of Education the power to make such a substantial change to student loans as canceling debt. They argued that the executive branch would violate the principle of separation of powers by canceling student debt when Congress had not authorized it with such a power. The Biden administration argued that Congress authorized the executive branch with a wide breadth of powers to make changes to student loan programs under the HEROES Act, including the ability to cancel student debt.
In a 6-3 decision, the Court ruled in favor of Nebraska. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion, in which he stated,
“Among Congress’s most important authorities is its control of the purse… It would be odd to think that separation of powers concerns evaporate simply because the Government is providing monetary benefits rather than imposing obligations… as we have already shown, the HEROES Act provides no authorization for the Secretary’s plan even when examined using the ordinary tools of statutory interpretation.”
Justice Elena Kagan wrote the dissenting opinion, arguing,
“The [HEROES Act] provides the Secretary [of Education] with broad authority to give emergency relief to student-loan borrowers, including by altering usual discharge rules. What the Secretary did fits comfortably within that delegation. But the Court forbids him to proceed. As in other cases, the rules of the game change when Congress enacts broad delegations allowing agencies to take substantial regulatory measures.”
- Describe the background of the case in your own words. What policy did President Biden order the Secretary of Education carry out? Why did Nebraska sue the Biden administration?
- How did the Court rule? Do you agree with their ruling? Why or why not?
Big Idea Questions
- The question over how to draw the line between executive powers and congressional powers has been a perennial issue in United States history. Why do you think that Congress sometimes delegates the executive branch with certain powers in order to carry out legislation that has been passed?
- Congress has more and more frequently delegated authority to the executive branch in the 20th and 21st century. Is this a concern Why or why not? What challenges arise concerning the principle of separation of powers when this is done?
One frequent topic that disputes over separation of powers arises under is foreign policy. Read the Oyez article on Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer (1952). What was the central issue of the case? Do you think the executive should have greater powers during wartime as Commander-in-Chief? Why or why not?
Separation of Powers with Checks and Balances
The Founders understood the principle expressed by the British historian, Lord Acton, “All power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Through the complex system of checks and balances developed in the U.S. Constitution, they sought to assure that no person or branch of government could exercise unrestrained power. As James Madison advocated in Federalist No. 51, ambition should counteract ambition in a fashion that advances the public good.
Constitutional Principles: Separation of Powers
Do you understand why separation of powers is important for protecting our freedom? This short, engaging video focuses on the constitutional principle of separation of powers. Clear definitions and graphics, an engaging historical narrative, brief scholar interviews, and memorable quotes will make this 6-minute video perfect for use any time of the year!
International Relations and the Constitutional Separation of Powers
In 1787 the Constitution granted significant new powers to the central government, including those traditionally held by sovereign nations. In response to Anti-Federalist concerns about a too-powerful central government, James Madison explained that the new system of government was designed to work with human nature.
War and Constitutional Separation of Powers
The U.S. Constitution divides war powers between the president and Congress. The delegates to the Constitutional Convention were focused on creating a government powerful enough to protect liberty, but not so powerful that it would threaten liberty. They worked carefully to craft the war powers of the new government, knowing that history was full of examples of war, so that war powers were necessary, but also of rulers who had abused the power and endangered liberty in order to make war.