Over the weekend, debt activists uncovered that the Biden administration has hidden an Education Department memo on the legality of student debt forgiveness for months — despite repeated calls from activists and progressive lawmakers for the memo to be released.
The New Yorker reported that the Debt Collective, an activist group aimed at achieving student loan and other debt forgiveness, filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the memo that White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain said in early April would be ready in “the next few weeks.”
The seven-page memo received by the activists was completely redacted, but it was dated April 8, just a week after Klain discussed the memo’s existence on cable news — meaning that the memo has existed for months, but the administration has concealed it from the public.
Look what we found!
The White House been sitting on the legal memo about their authority to cancel student debt since April 8. It is six pages long. No more excuses it is time to #CancelStudentDebthttps://t.co/GlQkpgiGjQ pic.twitter.com/L3QXEEp3p7
— The Debt Collective (@StrikeDebt) October 29, 2021
For the past few months, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki has maintained that the administration didn’t have information on the memo, saying last month that she “[didn’t] have any other update.” She has also shifted the responsibility away from President Joe Biden, saying, “If Congress wants to send us a bill that would, you know, relieve $10,000 in student debt, the president would be happy to sign that.”
Last week, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said that the administration was still exploring the issue, and that they are making it a priority “that part of the conversation is examining loan forgiveness.” According to reports from earlier this year, Cardona is named as the recipient of the memo, which was created under his and the White House’s direction.
Early last month, progressive lawmakers led by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) wrote a letter to Biden giving him a two-week deadline to release the memo. Though the deadline came and passed, there were no updates on the memo from the administration.
The fact that the administration has acted as though the memo doesn’t exist for months suggests that they may be hiding its contents. Because the administration has obfuscated what the memo says, activists have theorized that the memo by the Education Department’s acting general counsel may not have found what officials were hoping for.
“The Debt Collective activists developed a theory: that the lawyers at the Department of Education had already written their memo, that they had advised Biden that he did have the authority to cancel debt, and that the Administration was keeping the memo quiet because they didn’t like its conclusions. But this was mere speculation,” The New Yorker reported.
The activists received dozens of emails from department officials, and on April 5, the general counsel called a draft of the memo “excellent.” Later, the word “draft” was removed from the memo, which activists feel lends support to their theory about the administration’s obfuscation.
Legal experts outside of the administration say that the president does have the authority to cancel student debt with a stroke of his pen, as advocates say. Even a deputy general counsel for the agency — an expert on predatory student loans cited often by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), one of Congress’s primary advocates for debt cancellation — is in favor of the idea.
The Debt Collective is planning to hold a week of action in January, before the student loan payment pause is set to restart in February.
“The urgency is clear: Biden says the ‘final’ moratorium on student loan payments ends in January,” the group wrote in a call to action. “But, our communities are suffering, and President Biden has the authority and capacity to fix it by picking up a pen and issuing an Executive Order to cancel all student loan debt.”
With only a few months before student loan payments are set to start again, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) said on Thursday that it’s time to pressure the president on the issue. “I think given how much [the Build Back Better Act] has been slashed, there is more opportunity than ever to bring the heat on Biden to cancel student loans,” she said. “He doesn’t need Manchin’s permission for that, and now that his agenda is thinly sliced, he needs to step up his executive action game and show his commitment to deliver for people.”