Executive Action as Power Building: A Response to Professor Doerfler

Luke Herrine–

Ryan Doerfler has an article over at Jacobin reacting in part to my argument that current law enables the Secretary of Education to cancel as much student debt as she wants by using her enforcement discretion. Professor Doerfler is not so much arguing against my proposal (for which he has some flattering words) as he is using it as an example of a baleful tendency among progressive elites. The tendency is to use legal ingenuity to find ways that a progressive president can “bring about much, if not all, of the change that we need” even if Congress does not cooperate. Professor Doerfler rightly warns that lawyerly craftiness can only get us so far, especially as the judiciary tilts towards becoming little more than an operational arm of those opposed to exactly that change. He also rightly points out that focusing on the ability of a progressive president (ideally a brilliant lawyer) with a team of progressive experts to work around the limits of the current system diverts attention from the task of building the working-class-led coalition necessary to change the system. It replaces power building with deference to experts’ power.

It was somewhat surreal to see my argument used as an example of this tendency, since it is one that I also oppose. I can understand why my argument, taken in isolation, could be seen as an example of such anti-political politics. All the more so when it is not in isolation, but rather written up at the American Prospect alongside other arguments for creative uses of executive action under the rubric of a “Day One Agenda”. But, I must insist, focusing on the ability of a President to cancel student debt (or to do other progressive things) without further congressional action does not require giving up on building the power, whether to put together legislative majorities or to create a true workers’ party or any number of other things. More than that: in an environment in which left power-building institutions are still atrophied, teasing out creative uses of executive power is essential to the latter task. A President dedicated to building power can use the Secretary of Education’s authority to cancel student debt as one tool to do so.

(For what it’s worth: others at Jacobin seem to agree, given their own version of a Day One Agenda, which includes exactly this proposal.)

Moreover, the concreteness of the demand for debt cancellation is useful as an organizing tool. In fact, organizing that uses the demand of student debt cancellation as part of the strategy to build working class power is already ongoing. It is because of this organizing that the idea of a jubilee is on the agenda in the first place. And it is out of this organizing that the idea for using the Secretary of Education’s enforcement discretion to wipe out all (or most) public student loan debt without congressional action took root.

Continue reading