“Smokey, this is not ‘Nam, this is bowling. There are rules.” So declares Walter Sobchak in the Coen brothers’ comedy classic The Big Lebowski.
The Supreme Court expressed a similar sentiment to the Biden Administration in Friday’s decision of Biden v. Nebraska. The context, of course, was not how to score a frame in bowling. Instead, it concerned the Administration’s attempt to cancel $430 billion in federal student loans. But the principle remained the same. In bowling, there are rules that must be followed for a throw to be counted. For the national government, there are laws that must be followed for its actions to be legitimate. (RELATED: ALAN DERSHOWITZ: The Supreme Court Moves Us One Step Closer To A Colorblind Society)
Chief Justice Roberts’ majority opinion showed clearly — and at times wittily — how the Biden Administration violated the law in its debt cancellation plan. At stake was the HEROES Act, passed in 2003. The law, written in the shadow of 9/11, sought to give the Secretary of Education some flexibility in administering federal student loan programs during wars and presidentially-declared national emergencies. This flexibility included the authority to “waive or modify any statutory or regulatory provision applicable” to student financial aid programs for the purpose of helping those who might be adversely affected by the national crisis.
The majority opinion dismantled the Biden Administration’s attempts to justify its debt cancellation policy as consistent with the HEROES Act. For one, Roberts discussed what it means to “wave or modify” the provisions of a law. To modify, in common usage, means to tinker with, to slightly amend. It does not mean to fundamentally change. But the Biden Administration here sought to essentially rewrite the statute, altering fundamental conditions stated in the law.
Nor did the Administration’s interpretation of “wave” fare any better. Past application of the law, as well as the statute’s own logic, pointed to “wave” as setting aside particular procedural requirements like certain paperwork or timetables. The Biden Administration, however, sought not to waive particulars but to eliminate the essence of any loan—that one entity lends with the legal obligation of the borrower to repay. In possibly his best line, Roberts quipped, “The Secretary’s plan has “modified” the cited provisions only in the same sense that ‘the French Revolution “modified” the status of the French nobility.”
For another, the court’s majority pointed out that the Education Secretary’s power only extended to some relief for particular persons adversely affected by a national emergency or war. But this debt relief had no targeted element. It applied to basically anyone with a federal student loan, extending to 43 million persons. Such a breathtaking scope, touching on nearly all participating in the program itself, was hardly targeted to specific persons facing particular challenges.
Roberts’ opinion rightly saw the stakes in this case. It did not have to do with particular policy outcomes. One could be for or against canceling student loans and reach the same conclusion about this litigation. Instead, the case concerned our foundational commitments to the rule of law and its manifestation in the Constitution’s separation of powers.
If we don’t follow our own laws, then we face either anarchy or tyranny. Here the threat was a bit of a combination, a government arbitrarily doing what it wanted but in so doing refusing to enforce the rules. (RELATED: STONE A. WASHINGTON: Don’t Stop At College — End Race-Based Admissions In Public Schools)
Moreover, Biden’s student loan plan went against the concept of separation of powers, supposedly following the rule of law in the letter but violating it in essence. Without separation of powers, one set of rulers could game the writing and executing of the laws for their own selfish ends. Here, the Biden Administration wanted to write the law and enforce it. But, per the Constitution, the writing job is for Congress, the enforcement for the executive.
In upholding the rule of law and separation of powers, the court protected our system of self-government. It protected this principle against an attempt to subvert it for partisan electoral advantage — which matters a lot more than bowling.
Adam Carrington is an associate professor of politics at Hillsdale College.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller News Foundation.
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