Can Biden Forgive Student Loan Debt? Progressives Are Demanding an Answer.

After more than six months, the White House still hasn’t outlined if the president has the authority to forgive student loan debt.
October 8, 2021, 4:48pm
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks during a meeting in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks during a meeting in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021. (Samuel Corum/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

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The White House said more than six months ago that a memo outlining President Joe Biden’s authority to cancel student loan debt was imminent. But it never came.

Now, a coalition of progressive House members is demanding to see the document, which White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain implied would ultimately steer Biden’s decision about the financial fate of millions of student borrowers. Since a pandemic-era pause on federal student loan payments ends in January, remaining silent on the issue will cause people confusion and even financial harm, according to the group, led by Rep. Ilhan Omar. 


“The time has come to release the memo and deliver on your promise to cancel student debt,” reads the letter, published in full by Politico. “Doing so will benefit every citizen and support our communities. With a single signature, you can improve the economy, create new jobs, transform the lives of 45 million Americans, narrow the racial wealth gap, and maintain the trust of voters.”

Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush, and Ayanna Pressley were among those who signed the request.

The issue is whether Biden can go ahead and cancel debt on his own, or whether it’ll be totally up to a Democrat-controlled Congress that’s so far failed to come together on more progressive policy issues. In their letter Friday, progressives said legal scholars and politicians alike have determined the Biden administration can broadly forgive debt through a provision of the Higher Education Act. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has also repeatedly said Biden can address student debt with “the flick of a pen.”

Still, another major Democratic leader—House Speaker Nancy Pelosi—has said Biden doesn’t have that kind of authority. 

The letter addresses both Biden and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and references comments that Klain made to Politico back in April about the memo “hopefully” making it to the White House in a few weeks. Around that time, some Democrats were pushing up to $50,000 of federal student loan cancellation per borrower, while Biden had suggested before taking office that he was open to around $10,000.

“He'll look at that legal authority, he'll look at the policy issues around that, and then he'll make a decision,” Klain said of the debt cancellation issue in April. “He hasn't made a decision on that either way. In fact, he hasn't yet gotten the memos that he needs to start to focus on that decision."

“The Department is working in partnership with colleagues at the Department of Justice and the White House to review options with respect to debt cancellation," a Department of Education spokesperson said.