Dissenting from our toxic political culture

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) pushed back on an administration plan to forgive student debt.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) pushed back on an administration plan to forgive student debt. Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Steve Kelman says it's important in this highly partisan era to find points of disagreement with one's own party.

The Supreme Court has now heard arguments about President Joe Biden's decision to cancel $400 billion in student debts by executive order. I am a Democrat and a Biden supporter. I am not sure what I think about the underlying policy question of whether it is right to cancel significant portions of student debt. I lean towards thinking this is a bad idea, but realize there are plausible arguments on both sides.

But I am sure what I think about the President's decision to adopt this policy through an executive order. It is a terrible idea.

This is a huge decision involving $400 billion (over time) of lost government revenue, according to a Congressional Budget Office estimate. If Biden wanted this, he should have gone to Congress and sought legislation. (At a minimum, he should have undertaken a rulemaking process, which allows public comment and debate before a decision is made.) If a decision involving $400 billion can be made by fiat, any decisions might be made disregarding our democratic procedures.

As I understand it, the President is justifying his decision by citing 2003 legislation authorizing debt cancellation during a national emergency. Beyond the fact that the president is declaring that the covid national emergency will end in May, it seems as a substantive matter absurd to claim we are in a national emergency that might make it difficult for students to have the money to pay back their debt at a time of record-low unemployment rates.

I have chosen to write about this issue here for a different reason. When Biden originally announced the program last year, only two Democratic Senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, criticized him, in both cases because they disagreed with the substance of forgiving the loans, not mentioning his use of an executive order rather than going to Congress. 

We have a toxic political environment in our country now. One of the key elements of the toxicity is how rare it is for people from one party to dissent from the accepted view within their party.

Republicans (or at least some Republicans) have done a better job here than Democrats. Although dissent by Republicans from the party line has not exactly been busting out all over, especially in terms of how Republican members vote in Congress, there have been a significant number of Republican dissenters from their party line, mostly involving refusals to support Donald Trump's presidential bids. A list of Republican dissenters has included a number of former cabinet secretaries along with Bill Brock, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee. And Liz Cheney famously voted to impeach Trump.

I want to strike a blow against toxicity by saying that what Biden, the president I support, did here was wrong. If we are ever going to emerge from toxicity, people need to start listening to each other more and being open to arguments from the "other" side. I am very disappointed that we are not seeing Democratic dissenters on the President's use of an executive order to make policy here come forth.

I ask my readers to ask yourselves if there is some controversial issue where your views are different from most of those on your side, and to step up and publicly dissent. This will be good for your soul, and good for the country.