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GOP Would Undermine 40 Million Student Debtors to Gain Midterm Leverage

The legal challenge is part of a broader GOP strategy to delay debt forgiveness until after the midterms.

Rep. Ayanna Pressley speaks during a news conference to discuss student debt cancellation on September 29, 2022 in Washington, D.C.

Republican attorneys from six GOP-led states recently filed a lawsuit against President Joe Biden’s popular plan for canceling student debt, but they face a steep legal challenge in convincing a federal court in Missouri to block the plan from taking effect before the midterms.

If successful, the lawsuit could block the Biden administration’s plan to provide up to $20,000 of student debt relief to federal Pell Grant recipients and $10,000 for others making less than $125,000 a year during the pandemic. However, in order to win a preliminary injunction to block the program from taking effect while facing legal challenges, the attorneys general must provide evidence that forgiving student debt will cause “irreparable harm” to the plaintiffs — in this case, the state governments of South Carolina, Missouri, Arkansas, Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas.

That’s a tall legal order given that canceling student debt would be a financial boon — and a source of stress relief — for the up to 40 million people the Biden administration estimates to be eligible for debt cancelation. Of those, nearly 20 million could see their entire remaining balance wiped clean after years of living with college debt hanging over their heads. Student debt cancelation is extremely popular among younger voters, and Biden saw his approval ratings improve after announcing the plan.

Ayesha Whyte, a former assistant attorney general for Washington, D.C, said the GOP lawsuit may not sit well with millions of voters with student debt, but there are likely political reasons for attempting to block or delay the program before the midterms.

“The strategy by these six Republican Attorney Generals is to oppose Biden and possibly garner some political favor with their governors or a certain part of their constituents, but these suits can delay debt relief for those that really need it and to ignore that … it’s thoughtless,” Whyte told Truthout in an interview.

Polling suggests the debt relief plan is popular and will bring likely voters out to the polls in November, with 46 percent saying they are more likely to vote thanks to student debt relief.

The Biden administration now faces multiple legal challenges to the student debt cancelation program in addition to the lawsuit from the six states. At least four lawsuits seeking to block the program were filed by activist attorneys, private citizens and right-wing legal groups over the past week, and more are expected, according to Inside Higher Ed.

The lawsuits make similar legal arguments that read like a litany of GOP talking points. The conservatives behind the lawsuits claim Biden’s debt cancelation program, announced in August and set to take effect this month, is illegal without additional legislation from Congress to authorize the executive branch to take action. Democrats say the lawsuits just go to show that the GOP puts profits over working people, while activists call it a “sham.”

The Biden administration claims authority to cancel debt under a 2003 law allowing the secretary of education to protect student borrowers in an emergency, in this case the COVID-19 pandemic. Republicans point out that Biden has said that the pandemic is “over,” suggesting we are no longer in an emergency, but it’s unclear if a judge would agree to this alleged discrepancy considering the pandemic’s lingering economic impacts.

Echoing the GOP’s attack lines ahead of the midterms, the state attorneys general also claim that canceling student debt would contribute to inflation, although experts say any economic impact would be minor. (As Truthout’s Sharon Zhang has reported, Republicans have cited other motives for opposing student debt cancelation, such as maintaining the financial leverage used to coerce low-income people into joining the military.)

The lawsuits also argue that the plan is unfair to private individuals who worked to pay off their student debt, but Whyte said few people have come forward to explain how they would be harmed by the canceling of student debt for themselves or others.

“There are certain people that murmur under their breaths, ‘I paid so you should have to pay as well,’ and, ‘Hey, we don’t want to add to the national debt,’ but those are complaints, they are not legal actions,” Whyte said.

In order to block the plan with a preliminary injunction, the Republican attorneys general must show “irreparable harm” to the plaintiff states, because the lawsuit was brought on behalf of the states, not individual citizens. In the complaint, they argue student debt cancelation could interfere with states’ higher education programs and hurt states financially, but even if states must adjust their budgets, Whyte said these challenges do not rise to the level of “irreparable harm.”

Still, these legal challenges have a political purpose as part of a broader GOP strategy to delay debt forgiveness until after voters head to the polls in November.

“Everyone wants to feel like they are doing something, so what you do is test the waters,” Whyte said, describing the GOP litigation strategy. “Will this or that lawsuit move forward? And then each legal challenge is piece of a potential delay. Can we delay this until the midterms, or even delay this until after another election in 2024?”

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