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Protesters demand cancellation of student debt

Demonstrators hold a protest in Philadelphia demanding student debt cancellation on January 10, 2021. (Photo: The Debt Collective/Facebook)

'All He Has to Do Is Sign': Group Crafts Executive Order for Biden to Cancel All Student Loan Debt

"With the stroke of a pen, Biden could grant tens of millions of Americans a semblance of financial freedom."

Jake Johnson

A union of debtors on Monday released a draft executive order that would fully cancel the $1.8 trillion in federal student loan debt currently saddling tens of millions of people across the United States.

"We have no other option but to fight for debt abolition and a society where everyone has the means to live."
—Braxton Brewington, Debt Collective

All that's required now, said the Debt Collective, is President Joe Biden's signature.

"President Biden can cancel all federal student loan debt with a simple executive order. So, we wrote the entire executive order for him," the group tweeted Monday. "Biden has a magic wand that can liberate 45 million people crushed by student debt. This wand is authority granted by Congress. He can cancel all federal loans through executive order. It's not a magic trick. With the flick of his pen he can make all federal student loan debt disappear."

Progressive organizations and activists have grown increasingly frustrated in recent weeks over Biden's inaction on student debt relief, and the draft executive order (pdf) represents an effort to keep pressure on the administration as it drags its feet.

In early April, White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain announced that Biden had directed the Education Department to prepare a memo on the president's legal authority to unilaterally cancel student loan debt. More than two months later, the memo has yet to be completed.

Writing for Teen Vogue on Monday, Debt Collective organizer and spokesperson Braxton Brewington characterized the requested memo as just one of the "stall tactics" that Biden has offered debt-crushed Americans since taking office in January.

Brewington argued that the president doesn't need an Education Department memo to tell him whether he has the power to cancel student loan debt on his own, given that legal experts (pdf), Democratic lawmakers, and even former President Donald Trump have demonstrated that such authority exists.

"Let's be clear: This authority has existed for some time," wrote Brewington. "Former President Trump used this authority three times to suspend payments and student loan interest during the pandemic—our evidence that Biden's request for a memo detailing his legal authority on power that's already been used is unnecessary."

"Our communities need help now, and canceling student debt is something the Biden administration can do today, without going through our dysfunctional Congress and seeking ever-elusive bipartisan support," Brewington continued. "Eliminating student debt would be an enormous bottom-up stimulus to our economy, creating millions of new jobs, accelerating home buying, and delivering additional pandemic relief to communities still recovering from the hardship of Covid-19."

The Debt Collective's draft order states that "the secretary of education shall immediately use the full extent of his power under the Higher Education Act and any other applicable law to cancel all obligations to repay federal student loans."

"Biden has a magic wand that can liberate 45 million people crushed by student debt. This wand is authority granted by Congress."
—Debt Collective

"When initially created in the Higher Education Act of 1965, the modern student loan program was meant to help make our higher education system more equal," the two-page document reads. "Today it does the opposite, imposing huge burdens on those households with the least inherited wealth, deepening the racial wealth gap and making higher education an enormously risky endeavor for those with the least capacity to bear risk. Student loan debt now prevents millions of people from pursuing their dreams."

Thus far, Biden has only been willing to support forgiving $10,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower through legislation—a near-impossible task given Democrats' razor-thin congressional majorities and the Senate's 60-vote legislative filibuster. When Biden released his budget proposal for fiscal year 2021 last month, activists were quick to notice that student debt forgiveness was nowhere to be found.

The Debt Collective's draft executive order comes about three months before a pandemic-related pause on federal student loan payments and interest is set to end without action from the Biden administration, which has not committed to extending the freeze again. The Education Department estimates that the pause on interest accumulation alone has saved borrowers around $4.8 billion a month.

"With the stroke of a pen, Biden could grant tens of millions of Americans a semblance of financial freedom, keeping one of his major campaign promises along the way," Brewington wrote. "We have no other option but to fight for debt abolition and a society where everyone has the means to live. Now we must use that will to get this executive order on President Biden's desk immediately, and by any means necessary."

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