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Can student loan debt be canceled by a president’s executive order?

Can President Joe Biden erase student loan debt with an executive order?

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Wednesday that President Joe Biden does not have authority to singularly forgive federal student loans, breaking with other leaders in the Democratic party.

“People think that the President of the United States has the power for debt forgiveness; he does not,” Pelosi said at a press conference. “He can postpone, he can delay, but he does not have that power. That has to be an act of Congress.”

Pelosi’s counterparts in the Senate disagree. Both Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren have repeatedly called on Biden to cancel student debt, often asserting that the president could act without Congress.

So who is correct House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer? Will your student loans get canceled?

Under the Property Clause and the Appropriation Clause of the U.S. Constitution, the executive branch can’t forgive debt that is owed to the federal government without a statutory grant from Congress. Federal student loans, for example, are owed by borrowers to the federal government. Typically, Congress has the “power of the purse” and controls federal spending, which would include student loan cancellation. Only Congress has the power to dispose of federal property, unless Congress explicitly places that authority with an administrative agency.

Advocates of student loan cancellation say that the Higher Education Act of 1965, which Congress passed, provides a statutory basis to give the Education Department unlimited authority to forgive student loans in whole or in part. So, to pass legal muster, the Biden administration would need to argue that while the executive branch doesn’t have the authority to enact student loan cancellation, the Higher Education Act of 1965 grants some exception because Congress granted such a right through legislation nearly 60 years ago.

Others think the law only gives the secretary the authority to forgive debt on a case-by-case basis, and that a single, massive sweep would require Congressional action. It’s possible the move would lead to legal challenges in court.

For many of the roughly 45 million Americans with student loans, though, the biggest question swirling around this ongoing discussion around debt cancellation may be: will my loans actually be eliminated?

That depends, of course, on the answers to the legal questions, but it also depends on which of a variety of plans would ultimately be put into place.

Biden said at a February town hall that he was prepared to write off $10,000 in debt, but not $50,000.

“I will not make that happen,” he said, later contending he does not have the authority to do so as president.

About $1.7 trillion in student debt is owed by nearly 44 million Americans, Federal Reserve data shows. The figure has more than doubled since 2008.

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