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Tipsheet

Biden Admin Defends Using Post-9/11 Law on Student Debt Forgiveness

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

During Friday’s White House press briefing, deputy director of the White House National Economic Council Bharat Ramamurti defended the legal basis for using a law passed in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to help military families to cancel students loans.

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Ramamurti discussed the Biden administration’s announcement this week to cancel some student loans. Specifically, President Biden said this week that he would forgive $10,000 for those who did not receive Pell Grants. He said he would forgive $20,000 those who went to college on Pell Grants and noted that the plan only applies to those who are earning less than $125,000 per year.

In Friday’s briefing, a reporter pointed out that the Biden administration used the HEROES Act of 2003 to cancel student debt. The Department of Justice published a memo about this law on Tuesday, explaining how Biden’s student loan plan relies on it.

"The president was clear...that he did not want to move forward on this unless it was clear that it [the law] was legally available to him. One of the first things that he did when he came to office was ask for that legal opinion. And got the answer that yes, options were available to him that were legally permissible under that law,” Ramamurti said.

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“It’s worth noting, by the way, that law that you’re talking about is the exact same legal authority that the secretary of education has been using since 2020 to impose a pause on student loan payments for 45 million borrowers,” he added.

A reporter pressed Ramamurti, asking how the Biden administration justifies using such a law for people who can’t pay back their student loans. 

“You’re now helping bail out people who took out loans and cannot pay them. Do you view people who can’t pay their debt as heroes like those who are in our armed services and were fighting after 9/11?” the reporter asked.

“I mean, look, I think as the president has said, there is a real problem here with the burden that student loan debt places on low income and middle income families,” Ramamurti said. “What are people supposed to do? They want to get a degree. They’re being told that’s the right thing to do. They think it’s going to help them.”

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Ramamurti stated that he believes the Biden administration is on “strong legal ground in taking this action.” 

The DOJ’s memo released Tuesday explained that the HEROES Act gave the Secretary of Education "sweeping authority" to modify student loans to help families impacted by 9/11.

The precursor of the HEROES Act of 2003 was the Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students Act of 2001…Enacted a few months after the terrorist attacks of September 11, that statute was intended to “provide the Secretary of Education with specific waiver authority to respond to conditions in the national emergency declared by the President on September 14, 2001.” To that end, Congress authorized the Secretary to “waive or modify any statutory or regulatory provision applicable to” student loan programs under title IV ‘as may be necessary to ensure that’ the Secretary could alleviate hardships individuals suffered because of September 11 and any subsequent terrorist attacks.

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The memo added that in 2020 and 2021, the Secretary of Education “repeatedly invoked” the law in response to the pandemic, first on March 20, 20202. The DOJ then claimed that the HEROES Act now gives the current administration the ability to forgive loans “for a broad class of borrowers” as a result of the pandemic.

You have asked whether the HEROES Act authorizes the Secretary to address the financial hardship arising out of the COVID -19 pandemic by reducing or canceling the principal balances of student loans for a broad class of borrowers. We conclude that the Act grants that authority. The plain text of the HEROES Act authorizes the Secretary to “waive or modify any statutory or regulatory provision applicable to” the federal student loan program, 20 U.S.C. § 1098bb(a)(1) (emphasis added), an authority that encompasses provisions applicable to the repayment of the principal balances of loans, provided certain conditions are met. We conclude that targeting relief towards those individuals who suffered financial hardship because of COVID -19 and who otherwise satisfy the requirements of the Act accords with the Act’s requirement that the waiver or modification “be necessary to ensure that” student loan recipients who are “affected” by a national emergency “are not placed in a worse position financially” with respect to their loans as a result.

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During Biden's announcement this week, he said that one-third of borrowers have student debt yet do not have a degree. A reporter asked Biden as he walked out the door if his student debt forgiveness plan was fair for those who chose not to go to college because they could not afford it and for those who responsibly paid their loans. Biden offered an incoherent response.

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