Biden Will Call on Congress to Forgive $10,000 in Student Debt for All Borrowers

Jonathan Ernst | Reuters
  • Biden said he will ask Congress to immediately cancel $10,000 in student debt per borrower in response to the Covid crisis.
  • The president-elect will also extend the payment pause that's scheduled to lapse this month.

President-elect Joe Biden will ask Congress to immediately cancel $10,000 in student debt for all borrowers and to extend the payment pause that's scheduled to lapse this month, an aide told reporters Friday afternoon.

The $900 billion pandemic aid package passed in December didn't include an extension of the payment pause for student loan borrowers that has been in effect since March and expires at the end of the month, concerning advocates who say the financial pain wrought by the pandemic has left many borrowers unable to make their payments.

In a recent Pew survey, 6 in 10 borrowers said it would be difficult for them to start paying their student loan bills again in the coming month. The vast majority — or around 90% — of federal student loan borrowers have taken advantage of the government's option to pause their payments during the pandemic, data shows.

It remains unknown for how long the payment pause will be extended by Biden.

The president-elect's commitment to forgiving $10,000 in student debt falls in line with his promises on the campaign, although he's facing mounting pressure to cancel more of the debt and to bypass Congress to do so.

Administrative or legislative forgiveness?

The Senate's top Democrat, Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., is calling on Biden to forgive $50,000 per borrower on the first day of his presidency. "All you need is the flick of a pen," Schumer said in December. "You don't need Congress." 

Meanwhile, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., recently described student debt forgiveness as "the single most effective economic stimulus that is available through executive action."

Not everyone agrees. Experts say Biden would likely run into court challenges if he moved to cancel the debt on his own.

And now that Democrats have secured a majority in Congress, the legislative path may seem more hopeful. Yet there's a long road from hopeful to borrowers seeing their debts reduced or eliminated.

Even with the two Senate seats Democrats picked up in Georgia, the party just eked out a majority, and will need Vice President-elect Kamala Harris to step in to rally 51 votes against Republicans' 50.

Not all Democrats may be on board for student debt forgiveness and even if they were, procedural rules in the Senate generally require legislation to garner 60 votes. It will be hard to get nine Republicans in support of a debt jubilee.

"With Democratic control of government, the Republicans are likely to re-assert their interest in the federal deficit and government spending," said Laurel Harbridge-Yong, associate professor at Northwestern University.

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Still, there may be a way around those rules. A once-a-year legislative process called budget reconciliation will allow Democrats to pass bills with their simple majority. That's how Democrats pushed through the final version of the Affordable Care Act in 2010. It's also how Republicans passed their massive tax cuts in 2017.

But there are limits to this method, said Ryan D. Doerfler, a law professor at the University of Chicago. "Democrats can only make use of reconciliation procedures three times over the next two years," he said. Because this process can only be used once a year, there's usually a lot of competition over what to include, and that will be particularly true during the pandemic.

Reconciliation legislation also must be related to budget changes, and senators can try to block any provisions they argue are not.

Given all the uncertainty of trying to pass legislation to forgive student debt, advocates and Democrats continue to call on Biden to cancel the loans administratively, saying borrowers can't afford to wait for the relief.

"President Biden has a historic opportunity to improve the lives of tens of millions of American families struggling in the midst of a national crisis," said Seth Frotman, who served as student loan ombudsman at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau during the Obama administration.

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