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Warren Would Bypass Congress to Cancel Federal Student Debt

Misyrlena Egkolfopoulou and Sahil Kapur

(Bloomberg) -- Senator Elizabeth Warren proposed Tuesday to ease federal student loan debt with executive authority, in a policy rollout aimed at attracting young voters.

Warren said that as president, she would not wait for Congress to approve her plans to cancel or modify federal student debt. Instead, she would directly authorize the Department of Education to provide as much as $50,000 in relief to about 95% of student loan borrowers.

She has said she would relieve $640 billion of student debt, a pledge that would be funded by her proposed tax on wealth for households with assets of more than $50 million. That, however, depends on the wealth tax passing Congress, which would take longer and might be difficult.

Warren trails Senator Bernie Sanders in support from younger voters, a crucial bloc for Democrats in the November election.

Under the Higher Education Act, Warren argued, the Department of Education has the discretion “to modify, compromise, waive or release student loans.” She says that would allow her administration to cancel federal student debt.

In her proposal, she vowed to simplify the cancellation application process, increase outreach to borrowers to encourage them to apply for relief and assist in improving borrowers’ credit history.

”It would take a tremendous amount of creative legal reading to allow for a blanket discharge of nearly all student loan debt within the existing regulatory framework,” said Dennis Cariello, co-chairman of the education practice at Hogan Marren Babbo & Rose Ltd. and a former senior attorney at the Education Department.

The rules governing the federal student loan program and the secretary of Education’s authority to cancel debt are “really designed for individual determinations, like a specific borrower’s inability to repay in a reasonable amount of time, not for widespread forgiveness,” he said.

Student loan experts and consumer advocacy groups, who pushed President Barack Obama on a similar idea, found his administration as too timid to tackle the burgeoning student debt crisis and its impact on the household balance sheets and U.S. economic growth.

Warren also promised to end federal aid to for-profit colleges, crack down on predatory lending and address racial disparities in the education system.

“Our government has cleared far bigger hurdles to meet the needs of big businesses when they came looking for bailouts, tax giveaways, and other concessions,” Warren said in a Medium post on Tuesday. “Instead of catering to the needs of the powerful and wealthy, a Warren administration will make the system work for the millions of Americans who worked hard to get an education, only to be trapped in debt.”

Her tax on households with assets of more than $50 million would, she said, eliminate private student loan debt for an estimated 42 million Americans. The campaign estimates that of the $2.75 trillion the wealth tax would raise over a decade, $640 billion would go to student debt relief.

The plan would eliminate as much as $50,000 in student debt for anyone with household income of less than $100,000, and partly cancel debt for those who make as much as $250,000. Beyond $100,000 in income, the $50,000 in per-person debt forgiveness falls by $1 for every $3 earned, zeroing out after $250,000.

To back her plan to use executive authority, Warren released a letter signed by members of Harvard Law School’s Legal Services Center that the campaign said outlines the president’s legal authority to direct the secretary of Education to execute her proposals “on day one.”

“Congress has granted the secretary a more specific and unrestricted authority to create and to cancel or modify debt owed under federal student loan programs,” the letter read. “That provision empowers the secretary to execute the broad debt cancellation plan you have proposed.”

Warren is appealing to younger voters who currently support Sanders. He has also proposed canceling student debt. A Quinnipiac University Poll found that Warren polled at 18% among voters between 18 to 34, while Sanders polled at 39%.

As the cost of college tuition soars, student loans are a salient pocketbook issue for millennials — the largest generation of eligible voters and a Democratic-leaning cohort — and Gen Z voters, many of whom will have access to the ballot box for the first time in 2020. Student debt topped $1.63 trillion in late 2019, according to the Federal Reserve.

Warren has zeroed in on the issue as a senator and presidential candidate. Last week she proposed to allow people to discharge student loan obligations in bankruptcy.

A Quinnipiac national poll in May found that 57% of Americans support Warren’s student loan policy, while 40% oppose it. Among Democrats, who will begin to pick their nominee next month, 79% supported it.

And among voters under 35 regardless of party, support was 74% and opposition was 25%.

The new plan is among several that Warren is releasing in the final stretch before Iowa kicks off the nominating contest.

(Adds new comment on federal authority to forgive loans beginning in seventh paragraph)

--With assistance from Gregory Korte and Shahien Nasiripour.

To contact the reporters on this story: Misyrlena Egkolfopoulou in Washington at megkolfopoul@bloomberg.net;Sahil Kapur in Washington at skapur39@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Wendy Benjaminson at wbenjaminson@bloomberg.net, Magan Crane

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