GOP lawmakers urge education secretary to avoid mass student debt cancellation

BY Sydney LakeSeptember 13, 2021, 2:00 AM
The U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC, as seen in September 2021.
Photo by Mandel Ngan—AFP/Getty Images

Four House Republicans sent a letter to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona on Sept. 8 pressuring him to not allow for mass student debt cancellation without approval from Congress. They also expressed concern about the department’s recent appointment of Toby Merrill, the cofounder and former director of the Project on Predatory Student Lending

“Indeed, mass cancellation of student loan debt would not only be a clear violation of the separation of powers but would also be an affront to the millions of borrowers who responsibly repaid their loan balances,” the letter states. Representatives Ted Budd, Warren Davidson, Scott Perry, and Barry Loudermilk argue that the education secretary has limited power to cancel student debt.

On the other side of the aisle, several Democratic leaders in Congress are pushing for large-scale forgiveness—to the tune of $50,000 per borrower. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren say that Biden has the power to do this through an executive order. During her 2020 presidential campaign, Warren proposed directing the secretary of education to cancel $50,000 of each borrower’s student debt, citing a letter coauthored by Merrill. 

The letter from the four House GOP members expressed “concern” over Merrill’s appointment as deputy general counsel at the Education Department. Some saw her appointment as having the potential to tip the scales in favor of more student-debt cancellation.

President Joe Biden, however, isn’t completely on board. He’s only publicly stated support for up to $10,000 in forgiveness. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi agrees that Biden does not have the power to cancel student loan debt on his own.

“People think that the President of the United States has the power for debt forgiveness,” Pelosi said during a press conference in late July. “He does not. He can postpone, he can delay, but he does not have that power.” 

Budd, Davidson, Perry, and Loudermilk in their letter specifically ask Cardona not to “usurp the will of the people and the authority Congress has delegated in canceling student debt beyond what the law clearly allows. 

“Any deviation from Congress’s clear intention for student loan balances to be repaid, with limited and specific exceptions, would be of grave concern,” the letter states.

Cardona and Biden have already dissolved $9 billion in student-loan debt, but that’s a very small fraction of outstanding balances; it only amounts to about 1% of all federal student loans. Forgiveness has gone to targeted groups including Americans with permanent disabilities and borrowers who attended now-defunct institutions. 

It remains unclear whether mass debt cancellation will happen anytime soon, but Cody Hounanian, program director at the Student Debt Crisis Center, anticipates we might see debt forgiveness for public service workers since they’re guaranteed student loan relief under Federal Student Aid’s Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF). 

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