IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Biden thinks student loan debt relief is up to Congress. That's a good thing.

$10,000 in student loans erased? $50,000? The "how" comes before the "how much."
Image: Stacks of money is layered between an image of Elizabeth Warren and Chuck Schumer on top and and image of President Joe Biden at the base. A graduation cap sits on top of the pile.
Both sides want student loan debt relief. The devil's in the details.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

As we've heard repeatedly, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Chuck Schumer want student loan debt wiped out — now. They and other Democrats have been pushing for months to have up to $50,000 of federally held education debt eliminated immediately through executive action. Here's the thing, though: I'm glad President Joe Biden says that he can't do it.

Before you pillory me, please know that I am as frustrated as you are — if not more so — about this conclusion. When I graduated from college a decade ago, I held a lot of student loans. Like, a "they're the only reason I'm able to afford food, housing and my university-required internship" amount of loans. Most of my federal loans are close to being paid off — but I am absolutely in favor of providing debt relief to millions of Americans who are burdened with debt from trying to get an education.

More annoying: Warren and Schumer's plan is a sound one, in my opinion. Since last fall, they've been arguing that the president has the authority under the Higher Education Act to instruct the education secretary to cancel federal student loan debt. It's a position that got a boost on Feb. 19, when a group of state attorneys general sent a letter to Congress backing the senators' argument.

Biden has said before that he'd rather sign a debt relief bill that Congress passes — one that wipes out $10,000 of federal debt and any interest on those loans — than try to go solo. During a CNN town hall Tuesday, the president made it crystal clear that he's not about that life.

"I will not make that happen," he said when asked what he'd do to make $50,000 of loan forgiveness happen. Instead, he repeated, community colleges should be free, and "any family making under $125,000 whose kids go to a state university they get into, that should be free, as well."

"I'm prepared to write off the $10,000 debt, but not $50,000," Biden said. "Because I don't think I have the authority to do it by signing with a pen."

Needless to say, people — myself included — were annoyed when that quote started circulating, to put it mildly. Schumer and Warren weren't about to give up on persuading Biden. "An ocean of student loan debt is holding back 43 million borrowers and disproportionately weighing down Black and Brown Americans," the senators said in a joint statement Wednesday. "Cancelling $50,000 in federal student loan debt will help close the racial wealth gap, benefit the 40% of borrowers who do not have a college degree, and help stimulate the economy. It's time to act."

I've been trying to work out what's at play and where I come down. Because there's a real debate to be had about how much loan debt to cancel to help the most people — and who should get that relief.

I can't bring myself to be mad at a president for insisting that Congress has a power that he doesn't.

On one hand, more than a third of people who take out loans for school owe less than $10,000 to the government. Most are those who would benefit the most from relief: folks who went to school for a semester or two before dropping out, many of whom are also in the lowest income quartile. Plus, "8 million federal student loan borrowers are currently in default, and most of them owe less than $10,000," as NPR reported.

So why is $50,000 the cap Warren and Schumer propose? It's not arbitrary or the limit that could be forgiven, a Warren aide told me in an email. Instead, it's the amount that experts concluded would have the greatest impact for the people struggling with the economic anchor that's holding them back, the aide said.

That amount would also include people with postgraduate educations. Even though those debtholders tend to have higher incomes, graduate students — especially women and people of color — need help, too, the Warren aide argued. Especially since those groups often go after graduate degrees to boost their résumés just to make the same amount as their white, male peers.

But the debate over the amount of debt relief overshadows the bigger question here — whether Biden can act on his own either way, as Schumer and Warren believe. Education Department lawyers said in a memo in January before the change in administrations that, nah, that's a stretch. The White House has said the Justice Department will undertake its own review of what authority Biden has.

Now, again, the best outcome in my mind is for the Justice Department to finish its review and conclude that Schumer and Warren are right. But the last two decades have told a consistent story, one in which Congress continually cedes its powers to the presidency. That we're still fighting the forever wars under the same law passed in 2001 is only the most obvious and costly example. The last four years have been especially galling as the White House has avoided congressional oversight, seized control of spending and otherwise steamrolled Congress.

The only way we get no student loan debt relief at all is if Republicans in Congress block it.

With that in mind, I can't bring myself to be mad at a president for insisting that Congress has a power that he doesn't. There should be more instances in which that's the case, not fewer.

So instead of promoting this fight as one between Warren and Schumer on one hand and Biden on the other, let's be honest about something: The only way we get no student loan debt relief at all is if Republicans in Congress block it. The main reason Democrats are appealing to Biden directly is their belief that a bill couldn't pass both houses of Congress. Meanwhile, Biden wants a bill to come to his desk — and despite his lower target for debt relief, I doubt he'd veto a bill that explicitly turns Warren and Schumer's plan into law.

I believe there are times when the good of the country requires creative solutions from the White House. But executive action can't be the only solution to partisan obstruction in the legislature. I'm glad Biden gets that — even if I wish it weren't the case.