The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The GOP attack on Biden’s student loan plan is upside-down class war

(Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)

It took a month, but the inevitable has happened. Conservatives have filed a lawsuit asking the courts to nullify the Biden administration’s decision to forgive up to $10,000 in student loans (and $20,000 for recipients of Pell Grants for low-income borrowers) for the tens of millions of Americans burdened by education debt.

This is a story about Republicans trying once again to achieve policy victories they can’t obtain by winning votes. But it’s also a story of delicate coalition politics and class warfare.

We knew this lawsuit was coming because Republicans can now be relied on to challenge in court almost every important law passed by a Democratic Congress or policy enacted by a Democratic administration. The hope is that GOP-appointed judges will do what they have shown themselves eager to do: arrive at whatever outcome the Republican Party seeks, no matter what the law dictates.

That’s certainly the case here. But the most significant obstacle conservatives faced was finding a plaintiff with “standing” to sue, since you have to show you were harmed in some way by the measure that you are asking the courts to nullify. Who exactly is harmed by forgiving people’s debt?

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The suit was brought by a lawyer named Frank Garrison, who just happens to work for the Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative organization that files suits on a range of issues of interest to the right; the foundation is representing him. Why him? Apparently it’s because he hails from Indiana, one of a small number of states that will be taxing the loan forgiveness as income.

Garrison says that since he still has student debt, when it’s discharged he’ll have to pay taxes on it, and therefore he has suffered harm. He says he’s likely to get his entire debt forgiven anyway through another federal program that relieves debts of people working in nonprofits, which wouldn’t be taxed.

The trouble is, even though the policy hasn’t been finalized, it looks as though neither Garrison nor anyone else will have to take this loan forgiveness if they don’t want to. He’ll be free to refuse it, so he’d suffer no “harm” and have no standing to sue.

That fact could end up torpedoing the lawsuit, though one never knows what Trump-appointed judges somewhere along the line of appeals might do. So, the ultimate outcome is uncertain. And public opinion on the plan itself has been mixed; once it became clear this is a partisan issue, Democrats and Republicans generally lined up behind their parties. However, the idea is more popular among younger and lower-income people, which is not surprising.

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The GOP has attacked the plan from multiple, sometimes contradictory directions. In one telling, people who need loan forgiveness are contemptible losers; Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) characterized the average recipient as “that slacker barista who wasted seven years in college studying completely useless things, now has loans and can’t get a job.”

Being a barista is, of course, a job, and if Cruz could last an entire shift at a busy Starbucks, it would be a shock. Not to mention that the problem with student loans is that the debt traps tens of millions of working people in financial insecurity, even people who have jobs in areas Cruz would pretend to find admirable, such as nursing or truck driving.

In another telling, the recipients of loan forgiveness are not contemptible losers but contemptible winners. They’re fancy-pants elitists getting money they don’t need, or as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called them, “elites with higher salaries.”

In both cases, Republicans want people to believe recipients of loan forgiveness must be liberals of one stripe or another, and that’s the most important reason to reject it: People you hate will benefit. Hate them because you think they represent a cultural elite or hate them because you think they represent an economic elite, but just hate them.

And yet, you will probably not be surprised to learn that the billionaire Koch brothers have given millions of dollars to the Pacific Legal Foundation. It’s nothing if not an instrument of America’s actual financial elite, crusading on behalf of the values and goals of its well-heeled donors.

The threat that elites face from student loan forgiveness isn’t immediate; it’s long-term. They might be taxed to pay for it, but, just as important, it reinforces the idea that government should be active and generous, which undermines the case for a limited government that taxes the wealthy as lightly as possible.

There are less ideological reasons one might not favor loan forgiveness. You can argue that it doesn’t address the fundamental problem of overpriced education, or that since it’s a one-time measure, we’ll have to keep doing it again and again.

But let’s not lose sight of what the court case is about: a party that has lost none of its passion for the interests of the wealthy, nurturing the grievances of the working class and pretending there is no contradiction between the two. It’s not a new story, but it’s as important as ever.