Three weeks into the administration of President Biden, many student borrowers are still wondering if relief is still coming. On the eve of his inauguration, President Biden released the first part of his financial plan to help Americans weather the current Covid crisis as well as rebuild the economy. They were accompanied by a whole host of executive orders aimed at expediting the process and laying the groundwork for potential bi-partisan legislation on everything from immigration reform to infrastructure.
One of the first orders signed as he took office was the extension of the pause on federal student loan repayments; extending the pause until the end of September 2021. However, to the surprise of many borrowers, additional student debt relief was completely absent from President Biden’s $1.9 trillion dollar relief proposal as well as the schedule of future executive orders.
During the campaign, President Biden’s primary promise to students was that he was going to call on Congress to pass legislation to erase $10,000 in federal student debt from all borrowers. If they were unwilling or unable to do so, he would use his executive powers to cancel out $10,000 in student debt.
From an executive standpoint, many progressives are pressuring President Biden to bypass Congress altogether and forgive $50,000 per borrower with an executive order. Senator Warren took it a step further by arguing that, forgiving student debt, would be “the single most effective economic stimulus available through executive action.”
In a memo from the Legal Services Center at the Harvard Law School to Senator Warren, it stated that “the President of the United States could 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.” It went on to add that “the power to create debt is generally understood to include the power to cancel it.” And “Congress has granted the Secretary a more specific and unrestricted authority to create and cancel or modify debt owed under federal student loan programs.”
If President Biden were to take executive action on his own, many experts believe that he would likely run into an onslaught of court challenges. More moderate members of his party have encouraged him to leverage his reputation as a bi-partisan deal maker who can and is willing to work across party lines to get deals done.
Even then, though Democrats control the House and Senate, the legislative path towards financial relief and debt cancellation remains bleak. After 4 years of reckless and wasteful spending with a side of tax breaks for the wealthy, the GOP has decided to return to their roots as fiscal budget hawks. Democrats would need to hold on to all of their votes as well as flip 10 Republican votes to pass bills in the Senate.
Using the once a year legislative process of budget reconciliation would help Democrats and President Biden pass bills with a simple majority, but even then, the archaic rules would force Democrats to defend any reconciliation legislation and how they relate to budget changes. At best, budget reconciliation can be used 3 times over the next 2 years, so there will be plenty of jockeying among Democrats about what can be passed and what should be prioritized. It’s how Republicans passed their tax cuts in 2017 and Democrats passed the Affordable Care Act in 2010.
Americans, and more specifically students are at a crossroads. Any further delay for relief is an injustice. The country is in the midst of a global health pandemic, a downward economic spiral, and many feel deeply divided from their neighbors. Helping students with the burden of loan debt doesn’t solve everything, but it is a step in the right direction that can be built upon. A student out of debt is one who can contribute more to the economy, specifically their local economies of small businesses and restaurants who still need as much support as they can get.