More than 80 congressional Democrats asked President Joe Biden to release a long-overdue White House memo outlining whether the president has the executive authority to cancel federal student loan debt.
The House and Senate coalition of progressives has been pressuring Biden to cancel $50,000 in federal student loan debt since he was sworn into office, framing it not only as a way to relieve economic stress that disproportionately impacts low-income Black and Hispanic borrowers but also as a responsibility to voters of color who were crucial to his election. The lawmakers argue that the executive authority Biden is currently using to cancel the interest owed on all federally held student loans – Section 432 of the Higher Education Act – is the same authority he could use to provide wide-scale student debt cancellation.
The letter is signed by high-profile Democrats in the Senate, including Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, as well as progressive darlings in the House, including Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Pramila Jayapal of Washington, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Katie Porter of California.
Political Cartoons on Joe Biden
“Publicly releasing the memo outlining your existing authority on canceling student debt and broadly doing so is crucial to making a meaningful difference in the lives of current students, borrowers, and their families,” they wrote. “It has been widely reported that the Department of Education has had this memo since April 5, 2021 after being directed to draft it.”
Indeed, White House chief of staff Ron Klain said last April that the memo would be made public in a matter of weeks, and many of the same members of Congress who signed on to Wednesday’s letter previously wrote to Biden and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona asking them to release the memo to the public by Oct. 22.
“We urge you to use every tool at your disposal to deliver relief to the millions of families inspired by your proposal to make a debt-free college degree within their reach by eliminating up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt for all families before payments resume.”
The renewed ask follows a failed attempt by Democrats to pass voting rights legislation to curb GOP-controlled states from enacting laws that make voting more difficult for low-income individuals and people of color. It also comes during a moment of uncertainty over the president’s Build Back Better package – the $1.75 trillion proposal to address major progressive priorities like climate change and universal child care and preschool.
The last several months have produced a series of legislative fumbles, annoying the president’s progressive supporters, who are staring down a challenging timeline heading into the 2022 midterm elections – a timeline that now includes filling an upcoming vacancy on the Supreme Court and potentially funding military action against Russia. And canceling federal student loan debt would appease the energizing wing of the Democratic Party that feels spurned.
As it stands, roughly 45 million borrowers hold more than $1.5 trillion in federal student loan debt. According to data from the Education Department, 36 million student loan borrowers would have their debt wiped clean if Biden took executive action to cancel up to $50,000 in student loan debt.
But Biden has been emphatic that he does not have the executive authority to cancel student loan debt.
Moreover, the president has never backed the wholesale cancellation of federal student loan debt, saying even during his campaign that while he might support canceling up to $10,000 in student loan debt, he didn’t think the president had the authority to do so. He’s shot down the idea several times since he took office, citing concerns about canceling debt for borrowers who graduated from elite schools like Harvard University – essentially adhering to the idea that wide-scale student loan debt cancelation often benefits wealthier borrowers.
Most recently, in July, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi backed the president in that long-held understanding of his executive authority.
“People think that the president of the United States has the power for debt forgiveness,” the California Democrat said during a press conference. “He does not. He can postpone, he can delay, but he does not have that power. That has to be an act of Congress.”
Instead of canceling student loan debt, Biden has said he’d rather use that money to provide early education for kids who come from disadvantaged circumstances, make community college free for all – as well as four years of state university free for families making less than $125,000 annually – and pour more resources into historically black colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions that often lack top-notch science and technology labs that can bring in lucrative government contracts.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment on the status of the memo and when it would be made public, but a spokeswoman for the Education Department told U.S. News that the department is “continuing to work closely with the White House to review additional options with respect to debt cancellation.”