Elizabeth Warren: Biden has the ‘power to cancel student loan debt’

BY Sydney LakeSeptember 20, 2021, 2:51 PM
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) campaigns with Gov. Gavin Newsom at Culver City High School in September 2021.
David McNew/Getty Images

Sen. Elizabeth Warren is one of the loudest voices pressuring President Joe Biden to cancel student loan debt on a large scale. Earlier this month, she said that Biden has the executive power to cancel student loan debt. But he doesn’t think so; he says student debt cancellation en masse needs to be done through congressional action.

“We don’t actually have to do anything in Congress,” Warren said at a meet-and-greet event in Northampton, Mass., on Sept. 12, according to WWLP, a local news network. “The President of the United States has the power to cancel student loan debt on his own.”

Warren leans on evidence presented by Toby Merrill, the cofounder and former director of the Project on Predatory Student Lending, to fight for Biden to cancel student loan debt. Merrill was recently appointed deputy general counsel for the Education Department’s Office of the General Counsel.

Merrill coauthored a letter to Warren, which argues that Congress granted the secretary of education the authority to cancel or modify federal student loans.

“The power to create debt is generally understood to include the power to cancel it,” the letter to Warren notes. The letter goes on to say that Congress gave a “general but restricted authority” to the executive branch to cancel federal debt through the Federal Claims Collection Act of 1966. 

How much forgiveness Warren wants

As part of Warren’s platform during her 2020 presidential campaign, the Democratic senator from Massachusetts proposed directing the secretary of education to cancel $50,000 of each borrower’s student debt. Biden has said he “won’t make that happen.”

More than two years later, Warren is still pushing for the same type of forgiveness. 

“Student loan debt is holding back tens of millions of people across this country who can’t buy homes, buy cars, or start small businesses,” Warren tweeted on June 13, 2021. “President Biden needs to #CancelStudentDebt not only for those people individually but also for our whole economy.”

But Warren and Biden don’t exactly see eye to eye when it comes to the mass cancellation of student loan debt. Biden has only said he’s “prepared to” cancel $10,000 per borrower.

“I’m prepared to write off $10,000 debt, but not [$50,000] because I don’t think I have the authority to do it by signing” an executive order, Biden said during a February 2021 town hall. 

They also disagree on how student loan cancellation can be done en masse. Warren has said repeatedly that Biden has the executive power to cancel student loan debt, but he doesn’t think so. Rather, Biden—as well as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi—says such a step can only be achieved by an “act of Congress,” such as a new bill that would address larger-scale debt cancellation.

Rep. Troy Carter, a Democrat from Louisiana, in late July introduced the Student Loan Relief Act, which would direct the secretary of education to discharge up to $50,000 of federal student loan debt for each borrower.

Warren’s other higher education, student loan efforts

Throughout the pandemic, Warren has also fought for further extensions to the freeze on student loan repayments. On June 23, she and other Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to Biden urging him to extend the freeze on student loan repayments through March 31, 2022—six months later than originally planned. 

“I believe that President Biden should #CancelStudentDebt to provide lasting relief to working families and boost our economy,” Warren tweeted on June 23. “But until then, extending the pause on student loan payments is a critical way to help tens of millions of borrowers being crushed by debt.”

In August, Biden announced that the forbearance period will end on Jan. 31, 2022. He and other White House officials say this will be the final such extension.

Warren has also supported more targeted forgiveness for borrowers who experienced predatory lending practices. During her 2020 presidential campaign, she ran in favor of free public college and technical school, though she hasn’t since taken public action on that proposal. 

On Sept. 21, Warren will appear as a keynote speaker at the Student Debt Crisis Center’s State of Student Debt Summit.

“Student debt cancellation is one of the most significant actions that President Biden can take right now to build a more just economy and address racial inequity,” Warren said in the announcement about the summit. “Let’s get this done.”

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