President-elect Joe Biden on Wednesday questioned whether he will have the authority to cancel student loan debt through executive action and said he is "unlikely" to do so, remarks that prompted forceful backlash from progressives who argue he will soon have the power—and a moral obligation—to provide at least some relief to millions of debt-saddled Americans.
Reiterating his promise to reenter the Paris climate agreement and protect Dreamers with executive action, Biden said he is skeptical that he could unilaterally cancel $50,000 in student loan debt for many borrowers, a proposal pushed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), and others. A poll released last month found that 60% of U.S. voters would support Biden canceling up to $50,000 of student loan debt per person.
"Unacceptable. Joe Biden can change the course of history for millions of Americans and energize the economy with the stroke of his pen. Keep pushing."
—Rahna Epting, MoveOn
"I'm going to get in trouble for saying this... for example, it's arguable that the president may have the executive power to forgive up to $50,000 in student debt," Biden said in an interview with the Washington Post, correctly anticipating progressive outrage over his stance. "Well, I think that's pretty questionable. I'm unsure of that. I'd be unlikely to do that."
Biden has proposed canceling $10,000 in federal student debt per borrower through legislation, which would require the approval of Congress. If Democrats fail to win both U.S. Senate runoffs in Georgia next month, Biden's hesitancy to use his executive authority could stand in the way of meaningful relief for Americans who collectively hold more than $1.7 trillion in student loan debt.
"It simply isn't correct to say the legal authority to cancel student debt via executive action is 'questionable,'" said Alexis Goldstein, senior policy analyst at Americans for Financial Reform. "The authority is clear, documented, and even the Trump administration used executive authority to cancel student loan interest payments, TWICE: in March (pre-CARES), then August."
"The Trump administration used executive action a third time, to once more cancel student loan interest payments... on December 4th, when the payment pause was extended to the end of January 2021," Goldstein noted.
Rahna Epting, executive director of advocacy group MoveOn, called Biden's position "unacceptable" and said progressives need to keep up the pressure on the incoming administration. MoveOn is part of a diverse coalition of more than 230 organizations calling on the president-elect to "use executive authority to cancel federal student debt on day one" of his administration.
— Rahna Epting (@rahnamepting) December 24, 2020
Along with their September letter arguing that the president can order the Secretary of Education to cancel $50,000 in student loan debt without congressional approval, Warren and Schumer attached a seven-page analysis (pdf) from legal experts affirming that the president has the authority to take such a step.
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"We have consulted the statutory and regulatory framework governing federal student loan programs administered by the Department of Education, as well as the framework and controlling interpretations of the budgetary structure of these programs," wrote Eileen Connor, Deanne Loonin, and Toby Merrill of the Project on Predatory Student Lending. "We conclude that such broad or categorical debt cancellation would be a lawful and permissible exercise of the Secretary's authority under existing law."
Biden's Wednesday interview with the Post was not the first time the president-elect has been dismissive of progressive demands that he use his executive authority to right injustices. During a meeting with civil rights leaders earlier this month, Biden claimed that the "executive authority that my progressive friends talk about is way beyond the bounds."
"Where I have executive authority, I will use it to undo every single damn thing this guy has done by executive authority," said the president-elect, "but I'm not going to exercise executive authority where it's a question."
The Intercept's Ryan Grim, who obtained a recording of Biden's meeting with civil rights leaders, said Thursday that what Biden lacks is not the authority to cancel student debt via executive order, but the political will.
"Biden lying to cover for his refusal to enact student debt cancellation is some pitiful cowardice," Grim tweeted.
The youth-led Sunrise Movement added Thursday that "Biden has the power to cancel student loan debt. To not use it is immoral."
Young people are living paycheck to paycheck. More of us are contemplating suicide than ever before. And the weight of debt hangs on so many of our necks b/c we did what society told us to do—go to school. @JoeBiden has the power to #CancelStudentDebt. To not use it is immoral. https://t.co/ZJVpllc1bt
— Sunrise Movement (@sunrisemvmt) December 24, 2020
Demands that the Biden administration move quickly to provide student debt relief were made more pressing by Congress' failure to extend a suspension of federal student loan payments in the new coronavirus relief legislation. The moratorium is set to expire at the end of January, soon after Biden takes office.
"This is a major failing," Ashley Harrington, federal advocacy director at the Center for Responsible Lending, told the Washington Post. "It is now more urgent than ever that the Biden-Harris administration keep its promise to provide substantial, across-the-board debt cancellation and take the necessary steps to prevent further financial devastation for vulnerable borrowers and communities."