A long-awaited memo related to student loan debt cancellation is now public in a heavily redacted form.
And while the memo itself tells us almost nothing, experts believe its existence and paper trail proves that the president has the authority to forgive all debt but lacks the political will to do so.
“This offers new evidence that every single lawyer who has looked at this issue — now including the lawyers at the Department of Education — reached the same conclusion,” Mike Pierce, executive director and co-founder of the Student Borrower Protection Center, told Yahoo Finance. “Joe Biden can cancel student debt with the flick of a pen.”
The memo, unearthed roughly six months since its existence was made public, reminded advocates of what President Joe Biden promised during the 2020 presidential campaign.
“The Biden Administration’s memo on student debt cancellation is just a reminder that the President has not delivered on his promises to student loan borrowers,” Natalia Abrams, president and founder at the Student Debt Crisis Center, told Yahoo Finance.
How we got to this point
The memo saga began on April 1, when White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain told Politico that the president asked Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to “prepare a memo on the president’s legal authority” before any decision.
This came after the president campaigned for the 2020 presidential election on the basis that he would “forgive a minimum of $10,000/person of federal student loans,” which would erase all of the student debt for 15 million of the nearly 45 million American borrowers.
After months of radio silence on the matter, in early October, House lawmakers — led by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) called on the president and Cardona to release the long-awaited memo that would determine Biden’s authority on the matter. They set a deadline of October 22, which passed without event.
A week later, new documents — including the memo — were released after the activist group Debt Collective’s Thomas Gokey obtained them via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.
But the documents were heavily redacted in pink and did not shed many details on the Education Department’s (ED) determinations.
One part of the memo appears to not have been redacted, which refers to the authority Cardona has that allows him to extend the interest-free payment pause on federal and federally-held student loans.
It also appears that the department had produced a memo titled “The Secretary’s Legal Authority for Broad-Based Debt Cancellation” on April 5, mere days after Klain had mentioned its existence.
As recently as October 21, ED told Yahoo Finance that there was no update to share. ED did not respond to requests for additional comment.
‘No more excuses’
Advocates, meanwhile, continue to push for full cancellation as student loan payments are set to restart in a few months.
The basic argument for the president to be able to forgive student debt through executive action, as detailed by the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School in a letter to Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, is that the Education Secretary has the power “to cancel existing student loan debt under a distinct statutory authority — the authority to modify existing loans found in 20 U.S.C. § 1082(a)(4).”
(It is worth noting that the department has hired Toby Merrill, who founded the Project on Predatory Student Lending at Harvard Law School and co-authored the legal analysis provided to Warren.)
The nearly two-year payment pause on student loan payments is expected to expire on January 31, 2022.
While restarting payments in itself is a painful process, as the department needs to communicate with millions of borrowers, more than 16 million student loan borrowers are also changing servicers, adding more complexity into the mix.
Given this backdrop, “the reality is that we do not need the memo,” Abrams asserted. “The President already has the legal authority to cancel student debt, and experts from across the country, including Harvard Law, agree.”
“We do not need to wait for this piece of paper to fight for debt cancellation. We are doubling our efforts to mobilize millions of student loan borrowers, parents, and allies in support of student debt cancellation,” Abrams added.
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