The House on Wednesday passed a resolution to cancel the Biden administration’s student debt relief plan. The vote fell largely along party lines, with two Democrats joining all the Republicans who were present.

Though nearly all House Republicans had already voted to block the Biden administration’s plan as part of last month’s debt ceiling increase bill, this was the first time the controversial policy was put to a standalone vote in Congress. 

Republicans, including Utah GOP Rep. Burgess Owens, have criticized Biden’s debt forgiveness plan as executive overreach and as an effort to subsidize an already broken system at the expense of American taxpayers, to the tune of nearly half a trillion dollars this year alone, according to the Congressional Budget Office. 

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As chair of the House Higher Education and Workforce Development Subcommittee, Owens, who represents Utah’s 4th District, held a hearing Wednesday morning to question Under Secretary of Education James Kvall and Chief Operating Officer of Federal Student Aid Richard Cordray about their authority to issue debt forgiveness on behalf of the Biden administration and the potential impacts of the decision on American taxpayers. 

“The Department of Education has vastly overstepped its authority,” Owens said in his introductory statement. “When in the world did unelected bureaucrats of the Department of Education and so-called nonpartisan leaders of the Federal Student Aid become legislators?”

Owens was one of 40 legislators who initially sponsored HJRes. 45 to overturn Biden’s executive action. Owens says the student debt relief plan could cost taxpayers much more than the CBO estimate, and that the move would increase inflationary pressures. 

“The department’s actions are not a fix. Instead, they only exacerbate the long-term structural problems of college costs,” Owens said during the hearing. “It is the taxpayer who will ultimately foot the bill for this proposal.”

What is Biden’s student debt relief plan?

The Biden administration announced its student debt relief plan in August 2022 in keeping with campaign promises and in response to “the economic crisis brought on by the pandemic.”

The move was seen by many on the right as a political ploy to get young people out to vote in the November midterm election. 

Biden’s plan would forgive up to $20,000 in student loans for borrowers who qualified for federal Pell grants while in college and up to $10,000 for individuals making less than $125,000 a year or families making less than $250,000. 

The Biden administration’s action derives its authority from the Heroes Act of 2003, a bill allowing the Secretary of Education to “‘waive or modify any statutory or regulatory provision applicable to’ federal student loan programs” in the case of a national emergency. Originally designed for soldiers forced to leave college during wartime, the Biden administration insists it is also applicable in the case of a pandemic. 

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“The goal is to ensure lower and middle income borrowers are not left in a worse position with respect to their loans because of the pandemic so they can return to repayment without entering delinquency or default,” Cordray said during Owen’s hearing. 

However, that goal was placed on hold in November 2022 when the program was struck down by a federal judge. By that point, around 25 million people had already applied for student debt relief. No debt has been canceled under the program yet. 

What’s next?

The Biden administration has since faced several lawsuits over the program, including two which have made their way to the Supreme Court. 

Though there were questions about whether the states and individuals bringing forward the lawsuits had standing, the court generally appeared skeptical of the claim that the executive branch had the authority to pay student debt with Americans’ tax dollars. 

“We like to usually leave situations of that sort, when you’re talking about spending the government’s money, which is the taxpayers’ money, to the people in charge of the money, which is Congress,” Chief Justice John Roberts said. 

The Supreme Court is expected to reach a decision on whether Biden can move forward with his student debt relief plan sometime this summer. Student loan payments are set to resume 60 days after the ruling, following repeated extensions of a pandemic-era pause to payments by the Biden administration. 

But House Republicans are hoping they can cobble together Senate support for their bill long before then. Republicans will need just a few votes in the Senate to reach a majority and pass the bill, instead of a filibuster-proof 60. This is because the Biden administration program was categorized as a “rule” by the Government Accountability Office. 

The Congressional Review Act, the statute which allows Congress to overturn recent executive branch decisions, will also allow House Republicans to force a Senate vote on the measure. 

Some Senate Democrats have expressed worries about Biden’s plan and may be open to crossing the aisle in support of overturning it. However, Democrats have also voiced concern that doing so would result in the Department of Education having to charge borrowers back interest on their student loans. 

Regardless of the outcome in the Senate, Biden has promised to veto the bill if it passes.