President Joe Biden said Tuesday night that he would not support the plan being pushed by prominent Democrats that aimed to cancel up to $50,000 of federal student debt for borrowers. Biden was asked during a CNN town hall about whether his effort to tackle student debt was ambitious enough compared with the sweeping debt cancellation program backed by not just by the likes of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren but also Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. “I will not make that happen,” Biden said of the Democratic plan. “I am prepared to write off the $10,000 debt but not $50 [thousand], because I don’t think I have the authority to do it.” Many Democrats, however, including Warren and Schumer, think that Biden does have the authority to forgive the debt held by the federal government through the Education Department, meaning that the move could be made by executive action rather than requiring an act of Congress.
The scope of the debt problem is immense: The U.S., as a nation, currently owes nearly $2 trillion in student debt, with the average student, as of 2018, owing between $20,000 and $25,000. The problem is compounded by the fact that students from lower income households take out and owe far more and Black college graduates, in particular, are five times more likely to default on their loans. The impact will obviously be far-reaching: affecting a generation’s ability to achieve homeownership and dimming the possibility of even thinking about retirement.
Student debt, like many of the issues close to the heart of the Democratic Party’s more progressive wing, was not a core Biden issue when he announced he would run for president and subsequently started dropping primaries and caucuses right and left to opponents with more policy ambition. Since then, Biden has come around to the idea that he might actually have to stand for something other than decency, while simultaneously being handed a rare historical moment during the pandemic where Americans might just be open to new ideas about how they live. After securing the presidency in November, the Biden folks played footsy with those pushing a big student debt cancellation but ultimately reverted to form, coalescing around a smaller debt relief idea. That’s certainly Biden’s policy decision to make and there are many competing policy priorities and legitimate differences about how to go about them. What grates is that Biden is leaning toward not making any policy decision at all on student debt relief.
The rationale first floated by the incoming Biden administration, and said explicitly by Biden himself Tuesday, is that he doesn’t think the president has the legal, constitutional authority to cancel federal student debt. There is a strong case to be made that Biden’s constitutional take is not the correct one. If Biden believes he can’t technically do it, it’s hard to argue with that. But maybe that’s the point? As we’ve seen over the past four years, the Constitution is good like that: You can bend its meaning or mangle it however you want and most people don’t know the difference. It’s most often used as a shield, not a sword, a justification for doing nothing, for getting bogged down, for the lawyerly status quo. Sort of like all the Republicans that said they really thought Trump was responsible for the Capitol insurrection, but, golly, their hands were tied when it came to doing something about it because, as ever, the Constitution and someone, somewhere’s interpretation of it.
So the Constitution does allow for $10,000 in student forgiveness then? It appears the distinction that Biden is trying to make is that $10,000 is only justifiable, procedurally, as part of a COVID-19 relief package. “The President has and continues to support canceling $10,000 of federal student loan debt per person as a response to the COVID crisis,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a briefing in February. He’d love to do more, but his hands are tied because the Constitution and someone, somewhere’s interpretation of it.