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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks at a press conference

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) speaks during a weekly news conference at the U.S. Capitol on July 28, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Pelosi Under Fire for Parroting 'Right-Wing Lies' Against Student Loan Debt Cancellation

"The truth is Biden can cancel 100% of your federal student loans with a signature."

Jake Johnson

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was met with swift backlash Wednesday after she claimed that President Joe Biden does not have the authority to cancel federal student loan debt on his own, a position that puts her at odds with legal experts and prominent members of her own party.

"You couldn't have a worse message than this one, both factually untrue and politically suicidal."
—The Debt Collective

"People think that the president of the United States has the power for debt forgiveness. He does not," Pelosi (D-Calif.) said during a press briefing. "He can postpone, he can delay, but he does not have that power. That has to be an act of Congress."

Progressive activists who have been tirelessly pressuring Biden to cancel student loan debt via executive order immediately pushed back.

The Debt Collective, a union of debtors urging Biden to forgive all $1.8 trillion in outstanding federal student loan debt, accused the House Speaker of parroting "right-wing lies" against debt cancellation. 

"The truth is Biden can cancel 100% of your federal student loans with a signature. We wrote the paperwork for him to do it," the group tweeted, pointing to a draft executive order it released last month.

Last September, Eileen Connor, Deanne Loonin, and Toby Merrill of the Project on Predatory Student Lending argued in a letter (pdf) that—contrary to Pelosi's claim—the president has the power to "direct the secretary of the United States Department of Education... to exercise his or her existing authority to cancel federal student loan debt on a broad or categorical basis."

"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," the legal experts wrote. "We conclude that such broad or categorical debt cancellation would be a lawful and permissible exercise of the secretary’s authority under existing law."

After questioning whether Biden has the power to cancel federal student loan debt unilaterally, Pelosi went on to entertain talking points used by those who oppose the very idea of forgiving student debt.

“Suppose... your child just decided they, at this time, [do] not want to go to college but you're paying taxes to forgive somebody else's obligations," Pelosi said. "You may not be happy about that."

In response, New Republic columnist Natalie Shure argued that Pelosi was echoing "a fundamentally reactionary and individualistic argument that serves to undermine progressive taxation and social spending."

The Debt Collective added that "you couldn't have a worse message than this one, both factually untrue and politically suicidal."

Pelosi's comments came just 24 hours after Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) reiterated their call for Biden to cancel at least $50,000 in student loan debt per borrower—a step that Schumer insisted the president has the power to take without congressional approval.

"With the flick of a pen," Schumer said in a floor speech on Tuesday, "President Biden could give a fresh start to tens of millions of borrowers drowning in debt."

The two Democratic senators also pressed the Biden administration to extend a moratorium on student loan payments, which is set to expire at the end of September. The Education Department recently estimated that the pause on interest accumulation alone has saved student borrowers around $4.8 billion a month.

"Tick tock, tick tock," Warren said during a press conference Tuesday. "Over 30 million Americans will have a bill coming due in about two months. The payment pause is running out... The size of these payments for many borrowers is the size of their rent, their car payments, groceries, child care."

Earlier this year, Biden directed the Education Department to craft a memo on the president's legal authority to cancel student loan debt. The document has yet to be released, leading activists to slam the memo request as a "stall" tactic.

In recent months, the Biden Education Department has canceled roughly $3 billion in federal student loan debt for borrowers with disabilities and those who were defrauded by private for-profit colleges. Now, advocates argue, Biden should go further by wiping out all federal student loan debt.

"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," Braxton Brewington, a spokesperson for the Debt Collective, wrote for Teen Vogue last month. "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."

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