Progressives Press Biden, Cardona on Student Debt Forgiveness Memo

By Owen Daugherty, NASFAA Staff Reporter

President Joe Biden and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona have been put on notice by a group of 15 Democratic House members to procure a memo outlining their authority to cancel student loan debt for millions of borrowers.

In a letter sent to Biden and Cardona last week, the group of lawmakers — led by Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) — urged them to release a long-awaited memo Biden requested in February to determine his authority to broadly cancel student debt through administrative action.

The letter calls for the public release of the memo by no later than Oct. 22, 2021, more than eight months since the memo was first requested by the White House and more than six months since White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain said that it was expected in a matter of weeks.

“With … only four months of pandemic forbearance left, borrowers are anxiously awaiting the administration’s actions,” the letter states. “The time has come to release the memo and cancel student debt.”

The letter points to several legal scholars who have argued that the president does in fact have the broad authority to cancel student loan debt without having to go through Congress.

Additionally, with roughly 16 million borrowers in the midst of transitioning to a new student loan servicer, the letter notes “any attempt to restart payments or remain silent on matters regarding debt cancellation will result in unnecessary confusion and harm.”

Both Biden and former President Donald Trump cited authority within the Higher Education Act to pause federal student loan payments amid the coronavirus pandemic, the same authority progressives have pointed to as reasoning for why Biden can cancel student loans “with the flick of a pen.”

“It would be an exercise in legal gymnastics to suggest that the President had the authority to cancel the interest on student debt on his first day, but lacks the authority to cancel the principal on student debt moving forward,” the letter adds.

Mark Kantrowitz, a student financial aid expert, said the final payment pause makes the most logistical sense as to when the memo could be released and any potential forgiveness could take place considering borrowers aren’t making payments and the Department of Education (ED) is tasked with finding new servicers for borrowers. He added that due to lingering vacancies at ED, such as recently confirmed Undersecretary James Kvaal, the memo couldn’t have come out any earlier.

“There are still half a dozen senior political appointments that haven’t yet been implemented,” he said. “[ED] probably wants to have a couple other people on board just to have more pairs of eyeballs scrutinizing any [debt forgiveness] proposal.”

He added that progressives will most likely continue to make statements and send letters regarding debt forgiveness to keep the drumbeat going until a determination is made, but the October 22 deadline for the memo to be released imposed in the letter doesn’t hold much weight.

“On October 23 they might do something else to try to keep the issue alive,” Kantrowitz said. “They’re going to keep the pressure up, and at some point the administration will respond.”

Whether the president could broadly cancel debt remains unclear and is a point of debate among experts. So far, Biden has been hesitant to commit to any form of unilateral student debt forgiveness. While he campaigned on canceling $10,000 in federal student loan debt for each borrower in response to the pandemic, he balked at calls to eliminate up to $50,000, telling an audience at a town hall event early in his presidency that he “will not make that happen.”

The letter marks the latest attempt from progressives to mount a campaign aimed at persuading Biden to cancel student loan debt for tens of millions of borrowers. Since ED in August announced the final extension of the pause on student loan payments and interest accrual, leading members in Congress, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), have increased their pressure, ostensibly seeing the final extension as their best chance to achieve widespread debt forgiveness.

“Even during times of economic normalcy, student debt is a policy failure. Turning student debt payments back on in the middle of a pandemic is an act of policy failure,” the letter concludes. “Cancelling student debt is both the morally right and economically sound thing to do.”

Publication Date: 10/13/2021

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