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Joe Biden has a student loan debt relief problem on his hands

Student loan repayments restart in February with no relief plan from Democrats.
Photo illustration: Image of Joe Biden, a graduation cap and a degree against blocks showing dollar bills.
Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

Then-President Donald Trump announced a freeze on federal student loan interest payments on March 13, 2020, in response to the rapidly escalating Covid-19 outbreak in the United States. Two weeks later, Congress included a six-month pause of all payments on those loans in the CARES Act. Twenty-two months later, after multiple extensions, President Joe Biden is finally letting that pause lapse — and it feels like a huge own goal.

When federal student loan payments kick back in Feb. 1, 2022, it will be on Democrats’ watch.

For plenty of voters who put this administration in office, it will feel like a betrayal. I’ve personally seen friends and family say exactly that across social media platforms in the last few days. Notably, this (admittedly anecdotal) sentiment stretches far outside the Beltway and includes people who don’t usually follow politics closely.

The sheer number of people with student loans is staggering. Around 43 million Americans owe a collective $1.7 trillion. The federal government holds $1.59 trillion of that debt, having doled out it out in subsidized and unsubsidized loans to students and family loans co-signed by a parent. Around 41 million Americans have spent the last two years experiencing what life is like without having those monthly payments over their heads — and they liked it. They liked it a lot.

This very viral tweet from Forbes sums up Democrats’ problems succinctly. It read simply “#BREAKING: Biden won’t extend student loan relief.” Therein lies the problem. If Biden is president when loans restart, our renewed loan payments must be Biden’s fault. It certainly sounds like a logical premise.

To be fair, though, Biden never promised that the pause would be indefinite or that he’d unilaterally wipe out student debt. During the presidential campaign, he said he’d sign legislation that wiped out $10,000 worth of student loan debt for every person. Emphasis on “legislation” — as in “this is on Congress to make it happen.” In fact, Biden first proposed it as part of the CARES Act, albeit before he had any real power to shape the legislation. A month later, his campaign published a blog post saying cancellation should be in the next Covid relief package. But the package passed in December 2020 with no provisions for permanent debt cancellation included.

The odds of that provision passing the Senate are slim to none at the moment: It’s not in the most recent version of the Build Back Better Act, which is being slashed even further to appease one holdout senator. Adding in billions more for student loan relief is almost certainly out of the question. And a standalone bill would likely meet a Republican filibuster; why would Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., want to hand Democrats a political lifeline, even if half a million Kentuckians hold federal student debt?

Progressives in Congress say Biden already has the authority to wipe out $50,000 worth of student loan debt on his own through executive action. Biden himself isn’t so sure that’s the case and has stuck with his $10,000 target. The White House announced earlier this year that he’d ordered the departments of Justice and Education to review whether the law would allow for mass cancellation — but so far, we’ve had no update on how that review is going.

Biden has revamped several existing programs meant to ease the weight of student loan debt. The biggest is the shift in requirements related to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which erases public servants’ debts after 10 years of payments. But that and other shifts have yielded only $12.7 billion in relief — or less than 1 percent of the total amount of debt out there.

If this were a normal year, one without the trauma of an ongoing pandemic and its resulting political shifts, Democrats’ failure on this issue would be annoying, and of course disappointing. By not implementing a long-term plan for debt relief before the pandemic freeze on payments ends, though, Democrats have allowed themselves to be the ones changing the current status quo. And when “some groups for whom student debt may present particular challenges have also been hardest hit by the pandemic,” as the Census Bureau put it, that’s not exactly a winning message heading into a very tough midterm year.

Because here’s the thing: People generally don’t care about process arguments. When someone tells them their loan payments are restarting because DOJ lawyers aren’t sure Biden has the legal authority to wipe out student debt and Democrats are hamstrung by the filibuster, they’re skipping right to the bottom line for their bank accounts.

What really kills me is that passing loan relief was such a gimme, especially when a majority of voters are down with the kind of legislation that Biden wants to sign — not to mention how many centrists are out here talking about how Democrats need to focus less on being “woke” and more on pocketbook issues. This is a pretty solid example of an economic issue that Democrats should be owning, and yet they seem to be just strolling casually to the finish line, where suddenly millions of Americans have less cash on hand.

This is a pretty solid example of an economic issue that Democrats should be owning, and yet they seem to be just strolling casually to the finish line, where suddenly millions of Americans have less cash on hand.

I’m not saying voters are going to vote — or decide to stay home — solely on this issue. But why are Democrats trying to keep control of the House and Senate leaving anything to chance?

In February, when I wrote about this issue last, I said Biden was right to insist that Congress do its job and pass legislation, rather than bypassing the legislative branch with an executive order. I stand by that. I also said the “only way we get no student loan debt relief at all is if Republicans in Congress block it.” I stand by that, too — but with a caveat.

I expected the GOP to filibuster any attempt to pass a bill dealing with student loan debt. I didn’t expect no one would even try. Will this issue be the doom of Democrats next fall? Probably not by itself, but it’s definitely a missed opportunity. And those tend to add up.