WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden has asked Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to prepare a memo on the president’s legal authority to cancel student debt, White House chief of staff Ron Klain said Thursday, amid growing pressure for the administration to address the student loan crisis crippling millions of Americans.
In an interview with Politico, Klain said Biden will make a decision on how to proceed once he reviews the memo, which could be sent to his desk within the next few weeks.
“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. “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.”
Klain’s comments come as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and other Democrats on Capitol Hill are pressuring Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in student debt via executive action. Lawmakers have conceded that they lacked the needed Republican support to pass a bill that would do the same.
Biden has voiced support for canceling up to $10,000, but has said he does not think he has the legal authority to unilaterally wipe out as much as $50,000 without congressional action.
“I understand the impact of debt, and it can be debilitating,” Biden said at a town hall event in February. “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.”
The Department of Education memo is being conducted jointly with the Department of Justice, with the Department of Education taking the lead.
More than 40 million Americans are estimated to have student loan debt and the Federal Reserve estimates that in the third quarter of 2020, Americans owed more than $1.7 trillion in student loans. Studies show that students of color are more likely to take on student debt and disproportionately struggle to pay it back.
Proponents of student debt cancelation have argued that the president has the authority to cancel student loans under the Higher Education Act of 1965, which first granted the Secretary of Education the authority to back student loans. Biden has already exercised that authority, proponents of debt cancellation argue, by pausing student loan payments during the coronavirus pandemic.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters in February that while the review of his executive authority was ongoing, Biden would be “eager” to sign a bill passed by Congress that provided $10,000 in debt relief.