A group of House Democrats is calling on the Biden administration to release a long-awaited memo outlining whether the President has legal authority to cancel student loan debt on a mass scale.
In April, Biden ordered attorneys at the U.S. Department of Education and the Department of Justice to review whether the President has legal authority to enact broad, widespread student loan forgiveness. Progressives in Congress and student loan borrower advocacy groups have called on Biden to cancel $50,000 or more in student loan debt. The White House had initially suggested that a resulting legal memo would be released within weeks. But six months later, there has been no such memo.
In a letter first obtained by POLITICO, leading progressive House Democrats including Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), and Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) are calling on Biden to release the memo by October 22.
“The time has come to release the memo and deliver on your promise to cancel student debt,” wrote the group of 15 House Democrats. “Doing so will benefit every citizen and support our communities. With a single signature, you can improve the economy, create new jobs, transform the lives of 45 million Americans, narrow the racial wealth gap, and maintain the trust of voters.”
Several leading student loan legal experts have argued that President Biden has broad legal authority under the Higher Education Act (HEA) to cancel student debt using executive action. Advocates of mass student loan forgiveness have also pointed to the HEROES Act of 2003 — another federal statute governing financial aid and student loan programs — as a potential authority during times of emergencies. Both former President Trump and President Biden relied on the HEROES Act for authority to use executive action to suspend billions of dollars in student loan interest after the original CARES Act payment pause expired. Biden has also relied on the HEROES Act to broaden student loan forgiveness available under existing programs, most recently the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program.
Officials under former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, however, argued that widespread cancellation of student loans would go beyond the President’s statutory authority under both the HEA and the HEROES Act. And President Biden has himself expressed skepticism that he would have the legal authority to act so broadly. Instead, Biden has opted for a more “targeted” approach to student loan forgiveness — using executive action to relax program requirements under existing student loan forgiveness programs like Borrower Defense to Repayment, the Total and Permanent Disability Discharge program, and the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program. The Department projects that these actions will result in over $11 billion in new student loan forgiveness.
Still, those billions of dollars in debt cancellation barely scratch the surface of the nearly $1.8 trillion in outstanding student loan debt, and advocates of broad student loan forgiveness want Biden to go further. “Now it is time for you to honor your campaign pledge and use this authority to cancel all student debt,” wrote the 15 House Democrats.
While the Biden administration has not indicated when (or whether) the student loan forgiveness memo will be released, an administration official recently suggested that there would be no such widespread student debt cancellation. “Borrowers have been hearing a steady drumbeat about the possibility of loan forgiveness, either wholesale or piecemeal,” said Richard Cordray, Chief Operating Officer of Federal Student Aid at the U.S. Department of Education, in remarks last month. “We can expect that many, many borrowers will not be eager to return to repayment when they have been led to believe, or even to hope, that was never going to happen.”