Biden Admin's Redacted Memo on Canceling Student Debt Resurfaces Amid Growing Anger

A heavily redacted memo from the Department of Education is gaining renewed attention amid criticism of President Joe Biden for his failure to fulfill a campaign pledge to cancel some student loan debt.

Both on the campaign trail in 2020 and after becoming president-elect, Biden expressed support for canceling $10,000 of student debt per borrower. Some Democrats have urged him to do so through executive action.

However, the president has expressed uncertainty that he has the necessary authority to cancel debt without legislation and the administration asked the Department of Education in April to examine the matter and issue a memo.

That memo was never formally released and White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki suggested this week that the president's power to cancel student debt was still under review.

Nonetheless, a heavily redacted memo about Education Secretary Miguel Cardona's authority to grant "broad-based debt cancellation" appeared in the press in November.

That memo was obtained by Thomas Gokey of Debt Collective via a Freedom of Information Act request but it was so severely redacted that it offered no insight into possible debt cancellation by the executive branch.

White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain told Politico on April 1 that Biden had asked the Department of Education to "prepare a memo on the president's legal authority" and the redacted memo released in November was dated April 5, 2021.

The memo noted that it was "pre-decisional and deliberative" and therefore may not have been the final view of the department's acting general counsel, Emma Leheny, who prepared it. It is also not entirely clear if the redacted memo was the one requested by the White House and referenced by Klain.

In the tranche of documents obtained by Debt Collective, there appeared to be an unredacted portion of the memo that referred to Cardona's authority to extend the interest-free payment pause on federal student loans and federally-held student loans.

That pause was first put into place in September 2020 under the terms of the CARES Act in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and was subsequently extended by former President Donald Trump and then by Biden.

However, the pause will end on February 1, 2022, and borrowers will be required to begin repayments again, despite a number of Democrats calling on Biden to extend the moratorium.

A number of social media users on Twitter have highlighted the redacted Department of Education memo in the past few days as the end of the debt repayment pause has made headlines and anger has appeared to grow among those who are affected by student debt.

More than 200 organizations have called on Biden to extend the pause and progressive Democrats have been critical of his approach.

In a statement to Newsweek on Wednesday, Democratic Representative Ayanna Pressley said: "With families nationwide bearing the weight of skyrocketing childcare and housing costs, loss of employment and other pandemic related hardship, the last thing they need is yet another bill to pay. Student debt cancellation is a racial and economic justice issue, the president's authority to cancel student debt is clear, and it's time he act accordingly.

"President Biden's refusal so far to issue broad-based student debt cancellation is unconscionable, and he must do so before student loan payments resume on Feb 1. Failing to fulfill his campaign promise to cancel student debt would be a betrayal to the diverse and multigenerational coalition who elected him and would only hurt our economic recovery."

On December 8, Pressley issued a joint press release with Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) arguing that ending the repayment pause would take $85 billion out of the U.S. economy in 2022.

On Tuesday, Psaki suggested at a press briefing that the administration was waiting for Congress to pass legislation on debt cancellation.

"If Congress sends him a bill, he's happy to sign it. They haven't sent him a bill on that yet," the White House press secretary said.

Psaki also acknowledged that there had been questions about Biden's ability to cancel student debt and the matter had been under review but she didn't have "anything to report on that in this point in time."

Though most of the contents of the April 5 memo are unknown, it continues to raise questions about the president's authority to cancel student debt and it is not clear if or when the administration will release its findings on the matter.

Newsweek has asked the White House for comment.

President Joe Biden Answers Questions
President Joe Biden answers reporters' questions after delivering closing remarks for the White House's virtual Summit For Democracy in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on December 10, 2021 in Washington, D.C. Biden has not yet delivered on a campaign promise to cancel $10,000 of student debt per borrower. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images