Warren Would Erase $640 Billion in Student Debt No Matter What Congress Said

The candidate's latest plan shows how she'd be willing to use executive power as president.
January 14, 2020, 9:54pm
Elizabeth Warren standing in the middle of a crowd.
Elizabeth Warren in Iowa. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty

One problem with making promises as a presidential candidate is that for all the power that a president has, he or she will be unable to enact an agenda without the support of Congress. A lack of congressional backup doomed Donald Trump's effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and will be a major obstacle if the next president is a Democrat who tries to get Medicare for All done.

But Elizabeth Warren has a plan to deal with congressional gridlock, at least in her effort to forgive a large chunk of the U.S. student loan debt: She'll ignore Congress as much as possible.

That's the takeaway from a proposal Warren's campaign dropped Tuesday, which says that a President Warren would "direct the Secretary of Education to use their authority to begin to compromise and modify federal student loans consistent with my plan to cancel up to $50,000 in debt for 95% of student loan borrowers (about 42 million people)." That adds up to around $640 billion in erased debt, according to her previously released plan on student loans, and Warren also says that this process wouldn't lead to borrowers being hit with a tax bill. (Normally when a loan is cancelled it counts as income that has to be taxed.)

She isn't the only Democratic candidate who wants to forgive at least a portion of the estimated $1.6 trillion of the country's collective student debt (Bernie Sanders wants to erase all student debt), but this plan reveals that she wouldn't wait for Congress to pass a bill, a likely impossible prospect if Republicans retain control of the Senate.


The majority of student loans are held by the federal Department of Education, but it's debatable whether the president has the power to forgive them. Warren released a letter alongside the plan from Harvard Law School experts saying that such an action would be "lawful and permissible," but that is not a universally held view. When VICE asked Mark Kantrowitz, a leading student loan expert, about the possibility of a president cancelling debt last year, he replied that that sort of move would run into legal obstacles and arguments that the president was trying to spend money not appropriated by Congress.

At minimum, a debt-cancellation executive order from a President Warren (or Sanders) would likely lead to a lawsuit challenging its legitimacy, and with Trump appointing a huge number of federal judges it seems fair to wonder whether the courts would block that action.

If there are uncertainties when it comes to how all that would play out, it's clear that Warren is signaling she would try to use executive power to achieve her ends as much as possible, in contrast to a candidate like Joe Biden, who has emphasized working with Congress and even sharing power with Republicans. Her plan to erase student debt is less notable for the policy particulars it contains and more for its acknowledgement that a Democratic president is not going to work with a Republican Senate to get things done, but get things done in spite of whatever happens with Congress.

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