Congress Should Be Mightier Than A Pen
It is important to recognize the context for this wave of executive orders. We are in the middle of an unprecedented health and economic crisis that requires a robust response from key institutions within the Executive Branch. And it has become de rigueur to make a show of decisive action by signing a flurry of orders on day one. However, apart from true emergencies that are under the clear prerogative of the Office of the President, Congress should be the branch making these decisions, particularly when there’s an outsized price tag with far-reaching implications.
Such is the case with the recent proposals to cancel federal student loan debt.
President Biden deserves credit for resisting the calls of others in his party to wipe out $50,000 in student loan debt per borrower “with the flick of a pen,” as Politico reports. So far, it appears the president intends to work with Congress to cancel a smaller tranche of loans at $10,000 per borrower.
This is the right move. Student loan debt is not something that can be solved by the simple wave of a wand or stroke of a pen. Rather, the complicated moral and economic considerations of cancelling student loan debt should be examined within the process of debate created by Congress including hearings, mark-ups and floor consideration (preferably with amendments)—all in the public eye where constituents also have an opportunity to make their opinions known.
While it looks like President Biden may agree that Congress is the best body to deal with these questions, it is concerning that the push for an executive order is coming from congressional leaders. Across multiple administrations, legislators and the public have been quick to point the finger at presidents, alleging executive overreach. Perhaps what we’ve been watching is not executive overreach but legislative abdication.
At every juncture Congress has the option to stop executive overreach simply through fulfilling their basic duties to govern by traditional legislative means, resolutions of disapproval and meaningful oversight. The realm of what the president should be able to do without congressional approval—particularly through the appropriations process and on other money matters—should be relatively small and reserved for emergencies.
Over time, congressional inaction across issues ranging from regulations and trade to war powers and abuses of apportionment, has atrophied the will and ability of Congress to legislate. The best way to restore the Power of the Purse is to start exercising it. Congress should be mightier than the president’s pen, but it won’t be for long if legislators keep asking the president to do their dirty work.
Image credit: Orhan Cam