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“Time Is of the Essence”: Astra Taylor on Student Debt Relief Setback at Supreme Court, Biden’s Plan B

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The Supreme Court has blocked President Biden’s student debt relief plan, which sought to cancel up to $20,000 in individual loans, adding up to over $400 billion of federal student debt. The decision comes as a major blow to some 40 million qualified borrowers. Biden has announced his administration will pursue a “new path” for debt relief. “It was a blow to debtors,” says Astra Taylor, organizer with the Debt Collective and advocate for debt abolition. “It was a blow to anyone who cares about democracy.” Taylor says the ruling raises major concerns over the constitutional jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, and explains why groups like the Debt Collective are placing the moral culpability of debt onto creditors.

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StoryJun 01, 2023“Turning His Back on Student Debtors”: Biden’s Debt Deal Ends Freeze on Loan Payments for Millions
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

We spend the rest of the hour looking at the two major Supreme Court decisions that came down Friday. First we look at how the court blocked President Biden’s student debt relief plan, which sought to cancel up to $20,000 in individual loans, adding up to over $400 billion of federal student debt. The 6-to-3 decision by the ultraconservative-led court came as a major blow to some 40 million qualified borrowers. President Biden announced his administration will pursue a new path for debt relief.

For more, we go to Astra Taylor, organizer with the Debt Collective. Can you respond to what took place on Friday, Astra?

ASTRA TAYLOR: This was a baseless lawsuit that absolutely should have been thrown out of court. And, in fact, that is exactly what Justice Kagan says in her dissent, which I recommend everybody read. You know, the ultraconservative majority had to twist themselves into a pretzel to hear this case. And in the words of Justice Kagan, they violated the Constitution in their decision to strike down Biden’s debt debt relief plan. They arrogated power to themselves and basically said, “No, we’re ignoring the laws that Congress has passed. We’re ignoring the action of the president. And we’re saying that this debt relief cannot move forward.”

So it was a blow to debtors. It was a blow to anyone who cares about democracy, because they actually relied on something called the major questions doctrine, which is a made-up statutory interpretation that basically says, “We, the Supreme Court, can decide on anything and block agencies from serving the public good.” They used this to strike down environmental regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency and now to block student debt relief.

So, it’s a blow, but the silver lining — and it’s a small one, but, you know, we have to keep organizing and pushing it — is that Biden did announce what we’ve been calling a plan B. We’ve been saying for years and years that he has other legal authorities to cancel student debt. He promised to use it. It’s called the Higher Education Act. So, now the question is not whether he will use the Higher Education Act to deliver on student debt relief, but how. And it’s important that the Biden administration act fast, because time is of the essence.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Astra, in terms of acting fast, isn’t it the problem with the alternative that Biden is proposing, the rulemaking process will take months, if not possibly years, to actually go through the required steps of that rulemaking?

ASTRA TAYLOR: Yes. And the thing is that other legal experts and advocates have made clear that they actually do not need to go through a rulemaking process. We have always been clear at the Debt Collective that the Higher Education Act grants the president the authority to actually wipe out all student debt immediately. We wrote an executive order that we’ve been circulating for a long time. So, you know, this is something that absolutely can happen quickly.

And that’s imperative, because we need to be on the high ground here. We’ve seen that the Supreme Court is lawless. Again, they violated the Constitution, in the words of Justice Kagan. So, what we want to do is be fighting this reactionary court on the higher ground. People haven’t gotten the debt relief that they were promised and that they are counting on, and that will be life-changing for people.

So, you know, there is no guarantees. I think this is why this is such an important issue for everybody who cares about democracy. We’re seeing all of their decisions, from striking down affirmative action to legalizing discrimination to gutting environmental protections. You know, we want to fight them in a bold, robust way, and debt cancellation is something that is fully within the president’s power. The laws are absolutely clear. Congress delegated this authority to the secretary of education through multiple laws. So we just want people to get the relief they are counting on, and we are going to keep pushing the administration to do this the best way possible.

AMY GOODMAN: Can we talk about language for a minute, Astra? You’re using terms like “relief,” “debt cancellation.” You’re not saying “debt forgiveness,” which is often used in the media. Explain why.

ASTRA TAYLOR: Absolutely. The Debt Collective rejects the language of debt forgiveness, which implies that debtors did something wrong, that there’s a moral culpability there, that debtors should feel ashamed — right? — should be begging for forgiveness. We say that borrowers did nothing wrong. Forty-three million people have student debt, did it, have student debt, because they pursued an education. This is something we are all entitled to as human beings. We’re also entitled to medical debt cancellation, because we all deserve healthcare. So, we talk about debt cancellation, debt abolition, debt relief, to get — to push back on that moral framework.

And, in fact, what we think is that it is the creditors, and in this case, the Department of Education, that should be held morally culpable, that is, should be blamed for the student debt crisis. So that’s why we couple our demand for the abolition of all student debt with the demand for free public college for all, for everybody, as well as free healthcare and other vital public services. And those are the public services that this Supreme Court is dedicated to blocking in an autocratic and very dangerous way.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Astra, could you talk about the impact of the court’s decision last week on the financial companies, especially companies like SoFi Technologies, that provide a lot of private student loans?

ASTRA TAYLOR: Well, this is the outcome that private loan servicers were rooting for. You know, SoFi had filed a lawsuit to block the COVID moratorium on payments, the payment freeze that has been in place since March of 2020. So, this is obviously something that the private sector doesn’t want. It’s something that, you know, was very clear in some of the lawsuits that didn’t make it all the way to the Supreme Court, that employers were upset with the idea of debt relief because it would give employees a bit more leverage, a bit more freedom. So, absolutely, this is something that big business doesn’t want.

But I think it’s actually important to note that a loan servicer was invoked in the student debt case that was decided on Friday, which is called Nebraska v. Biden, and Republican states basically claimed to be suing on behalf of a loan servicer called MOHELA, which is based in Missouri, and that loan servicer actually distanced itself from the case, said it didn’t want anything to do with it, didn’t participate in it. So this is part of the baselessness of this lawsuit. A loan servicer in that instance actually didn’t sue. It actually — and yet was used as a kind of prop in order to justify this decision.

AMY GOODMAN: Astra Taylor, we want to thank you for being with us. And we also encourage people to go to to see our interview with David Dayen, executive editor of The American Prospect, who took on the very issue you’re addressing right now, Astra. Astra is speaking to us from North Carolina.

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