Advocates say student loan, environmental provisions of debt ceiling bill will harm Black Americans

“The poison pills in the negotiated debt ceiling deal are a perverse attack on the people most in need of protection and assistance in this country,” said Peggy Shepard, co-founder and executive director of WE Act for Environmental Justice. 

Critics of the bipartisan debt ceiling bill recently passed by the U.S. House of Representatives are calling out Republicans for including provisions they say will ultimately harm Black communities.

U.S. Rep. Maxwell Frost, D-Fla., released a statement following the House vote Wednesday night and “commended” the Biden-Harris administration for “brokering a deal that frees our country from the Republican manufactured crisis of defaulting on our nation’s debt.”

The U.S. Capitol is seen in Washington, Sunday, May 21, 2023. President Joe Biden planned on Sunday to speak directly with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, hoping to salvage talks to raise the debt limit that have stalled in recent days while he was abroad at the Group of Seven summit. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

However, the freshman congressman expressed concern over certain provisions, including the “deal’s failure to live up to the commitments we’ve made to younger generations as student borrowers will see their debt relief vanish before the end of the year, and our communities will see environmental protections stripped and raided as the effects of the climate crisis grow more and more severe.”

Progressive Democrats like U.S. Reps. Cori Bush of Missouri, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, shared that they voted against the debt ceiling deal over concerns that would negatively impact Black and brown Americans.

After days of negotiations between President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, the House on Wednesday passed the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023 (FRA) in an attempt to avert a potential default on the nation’s debt for the first time in history.

However, the bipartisan bill contains several spending cut provisions written by GOP policymakers to the chagrin of Democrats, civil rights groups and advocates.

In addition to expanding work requirements for government assistance programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, the legislation would terminate “the suspension of federal student loan payments” and rollback the National Environmental Protection Act, which some worry will harm efforts to tackle environmental injustice.

If passed by the U.S. Senate and signed into law by President Joe Biden, critics say the FRA would place some Black Americans at a disadvantage.

WASHINGTON, DC – MAY 31: Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) holds a news conference after the House passed The Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023 in the Rayburn Room at the U.S. Capitol on May 31, 2023 in Washington, DC. With a bipartisan vote of 314 to 117, the House passed the legislation to raise the nation’s borrowing limit through 2024 and send it to Senate with less than six days until a June 5 default deadline. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Democratic strategist Ameshia Cross told theGrio that congressional Republicans are absolutely fine with hurting people.” 

“They’re absolutely fine with adding work requirements to food stamps…they’re fine with trying to strip Medicaid. These are individuals who go out of their way to hurt people, specifically those who are at or below the poverty level,” she declared.

On Tuesday, NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson released a statement demanding congressional members to “reject the statutory end of the student loan payment pause, protect crucially important tools to fight environmental racism…and block onerous new work requirements for key programs.”

In a statement obtained by theGrio, WE Act for Environmental Justice, an organization that combats environmental racism, called for several provisions of the FRA to be amended, citing that marginalized communities will be greatly impacted.

Peggy Shepard, the organization’s co-founder and executive director, said, “The poison pills in the negotiated debt ceiling deal are a perverse attack on the people most in need of protection and assistance in this country.”

She added, “We are also alarmed at the greenlighting of the Mountain Valley Pipeline — a failed project with known detrimental impacts. Moving forward with MVP will have devastating clean air and water, cultural and legal impacts for generations to come.”

Dana Johnson, senior director of strategy and federal policy at WE Act for Environmental Justice, told theGrio that the provisions included in the FRA set a “dangerous precedent.” 

PITTSBURGH, PA – APRIL 22: Demonstrators from Pittsburghers for Public Transit rally supporters for transit justice and environmental justice on Earth Day on April 22, 2022 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images for Pittsburghers for Public Transit)

Congress has now engaged in matters that are outside…of its jurisdiction, and it is setting a really dangerous precedent,” moving forward, she said. 

Another point of contention for critics of the FRA is that Republicans successfully added a provision that resumes student loan payments despite many borrowers continuing to face financial hardship.

Cross noted that although some are upset at the Republican-led student loan provision in the FRA, borrowers were already slated to resume repaying their student loans this summer, 60 days after the Supreme Court rules on whether to keep intact President Biden’s forgiveness program that provides up to $20,000 in relief for eligible borrowers.

“The budget deal doesn’t change anything that Joe Biden and the Department of Education didn’t already have in place,” she said. “The pause on student debt repayment wasn’t going to get extended. [The Biden-Harris administration] said it wasn’t going to get extended in early spring.” 

She added, “This isn’t a win for Republicans. It’s honestly not a win for Democrats either, but it’s something that we already knew was going to happen even though Republicans are somewhat taking a victory lap on it.”

However, borrowers could soon see a reprieve in the coming weeks if the Supreme Court rules in favor of the Biden-Harris administration.

Cross told theGrio that borrowers should focus their attention away from the FRA and instead prepare themselves just in case the Supreme Court rules unfavorably. 

With persistent inflation despite a slight decline, Cross said Black borrowers could be greatly impacted come August and fall into default status. 

We’re still watching housing costs rise…We’re still seeing the effects of inflationary costs that hit minority communities the hardest. What will that mean when those payments restart?” she inquired.

Congresswoman Pressley filed an amendment to the debt ceiling bill to protect student borrowers and extend the pause on their payments despite how the Supreme Court rules in June. 

In a statement, Pressley said, “The student loan payment pause has been an essential lifeline for workers and families struggling to make ends meet.”

She added, “My amendment would protect student borrowers while also affirming the President’s clear legal authority to implement payment pauses, broad-based debt cancellation, and other critical relief measures. Republicans continue to play games with our economy, with disregard for our most vulnerable families.”

The House ultimately passed the bill without Pressley’s amendment. It now heads to the Senate for a vote.

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