With prospects for a Democratic-controlled Senate iffy at best, the left is pushing President-elect Joseph R. Biden to take advantage of executive authority to pursue a variety of causes, including canceling student debt and fighting climate change.
Mr. Biden has signaled a more cautious approach, saying the kind of authority his “progressive friends” are talking about is “way beyond the bounds.”
Whether he can continue to resist the pressure when he sits down in the Oval Office is another question.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer recently threw in with House liberals who make the case Mr. Biden should use executive authority to cancel up to $50,000 in student loan debt per borrower.
“I’m actually shocked that he’s strongly considering that as an option to help people during these tough times that we’re in,” Carlos Cardona, who chairs the Laconia Democrats in New Hampshire, said of executive action on student debt. “I think that’s great. That shows that he’s listening.”
Mr. Biden’s team said he plans immediate executive action in a handful of areas, such as re-entering the Paris Climate agreement, ending President Trump’s travel ban on certain majority-Muslim countries, and formally reinstating protections for “Dreamers,” immigrants who illegally came to the U.S. as children.
Activists on the left also are pressing Mr. Biden to use federal licensing authority to lower prescription drug costs and to leverage federal rules to institute health and safety standards for employees during the coronavirus pandemic, among other items.
Mr. Biden said recently that he plans to undo “every single damn thing” Mr. Trump has done via executive authority but suggested that some of the things progressives are trying to get him to do would fall outside constitutional boundaries.
“I’m not going to exercise executive authority where it’s a question, where I can come along and say, ‘I can do away with assault weapons,’” Mr. Biden told a group of civil rights leaders, according to a recording of the call obtained by The Intercept.
Mr. Schumer and House Democrats say Mr. Biden does have the authority under the Higher Education Act of 1965 to cancel up to $50,000 worth of student loan debt for borrowers.
“Forgiving $50,000 in student debt will change young people’s lives, particularly for Black young people, who hold far more student loan debt than their White peers,” said Rep.-elect Jamaal Bowman, New York Democrat. “It’s the right thing to do, and I urge the Biden administration to act.”
As legal justification, the office of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Democrat, pointed to language in the 1965 law the grants the Secretary of Education authority to “compromise, waive, or release” any liens.
Mr. Biden has laid out a more modest proposal and is pressing Congress to pass legislation that would provide for up to $10,000 of student loan debt forgiveness per borrower.
Critics across the political spectrum say broad student loan debt cancellation would overwhelmingly favor the wealthy and have only modest stimulative effects on the economy.
Fully forgiving $1.5 trillion in outstanding federal student loans would likely boost economic output during the current downturn by between $115 billion and $360 billion, according to an analysis from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.
“Any form of loan cancellation goes only to those with some amount of college education who borrowed for school,” the CRFB analysis said. “Therefore, even a better-targeted version is likely to be less stimulative than universal checks and far less stimulative than more targeted interventions such as expanded unemployment benefits.”
While Mr. Biden may not be able to ban the popular AR-15 semiautomatic rifle with the flick of a pen, gun-control activists say his administration can move to act on guns without cooperation from Congress.
“There is not a corner of the Justice Department or a corner of this administration that can’t be doing something to save lives from gun violence,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety.
Everytown says that the Biden administration could quash the marketplace for so-called “ghost guns” that can be manufactured from separate parts constructed from 3D printers by directing the Justice Department to redefine the gun parts and kits as firearms themselves.
“Ghost guns should be reclassified as firearms and treated like any other gun,” Mr. Feinblatt said.