Why Joe Biden Is Refusing to Cancel Student Loan Debt, Despite His Promises

During the 2020 election, then Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden committed to canceling $10,000 of student loan debt per borrower. More than 11 months into his administration, that promise has not been fulfilled.

President Biden had extended a pause in student loan repayments that was initially introduced by the CARES Act passed in March 2020 and subsequently extended by former President Donald Trump.

That repayment moratorium began in September 2020. However, Biden will not grant another extension of the pause despite calls from some Democrats for him to do so, with federal student loan payments set to restart in February next year.

The decision not to extend the moratorium has brought renewed attention to Biden's promise on student debt.

Biden tweeted his support for canceling $10,000 in student debt per borrower in March 2020. He again expressed support for the measure after becoming president-elect.

On November 16, 2020, Biden discussed Democratic legislation to forgive that amount of debt.

He said: "It's holding people up. They're in real trouble. They're having to make choices between paying their student loan and paying the rent, those kinds of decisions. It should be done immediately."

However, as Biden's first year in office comes to a close, that promised debt forgiveness has not taken place. The likely reason there has been no movement is that the president believes Congress must act on the issue.

Though Democrats including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) have argued that Biden can cancel up to $50,000 in student debt per borrower through executive action, he has expressed skepticism that he has the power to do so.

In April, the Department of Education was tasked with preparing a memo about whether Biden had the necessary authority. The administration has never released that memo but a heavily redacted memo about Education Secretary Miguel Cardona's authority to grant "broad-based debt cancellation" was obtained in November by Thomas Gokey of Debt Collective via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request

The redacted memo did not shed light on whether the president has the power to cancel student debt.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki indicated on Tuesday that "there have been questions and asks about what executive authorities could be used. That has been under review."

"I don't have anything to report on that in this point in time," she said.

Psaki also suggested that it was up to the House of Representatives and the Senate to pass a bill on student debt cancellation and send it to the president's desk.

"If Congress sends him a bill, he's happy to sign it. They haven't sent him a bill on that yet," Psaki

Democrats have struggled to pass parts of Biden's legislative agenda amid divisions between progressives and moderates in an evenly divided Senate.

The $1.75 trillion Build Back Better Act has now passed the House but has yet to be approved by the Senate and a provision in the bill for free community college was dropped. Every single Democratic vote in the Senate will be needed to pass the bill through the budget reconciliation process. That process does not require Republican votes.

Democrats are unlikely to use the budget reconciliation process to cancel student debt as there is a limit to the number of times they can deploy the procedure, while Republicans in both chambers are likely to oppose student loan relief, making passing legislation on the matter even more difficult.

It is still possible that the administration will conclude that Biden has the necessary authority to cancel the promised amount of debt or that Democrats will bring a bill on the issue up for debate.

Joe Biden Answers Reporters' Questions
U.S. 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, DC. Biden committed to canceling $10,000 of student loan debt per borrower but has so far not implemented the measure. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images