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Opinion: The GOP problem with student loan relief

Opinion by Jill Filipovic

(CNN) — The Biden administration has found a way to give student loan borrowers some relief. On Friday, it announced that, through its existing student loan forgiveness programs, it will be canceling another round of student debt for 227,000 borrowers — a total of $7.4 billion.

This is despite the best attempts by Republicans to block President Joe Biden’s efforts to forgive the crushing student loan debt plaguing so many Americans. And that’s a message that Biden should run on.

Last year, all six of the Supreme Court’s conservatives voted to tank Biden’s student loan relief program, while the three liberals voted to uphold it. That program would have given up to $20,000 in loan forgiveness to student debt holders making less than $125,000 a year; some 26 million people applied, according to the White House, and the court dashed their hopes. And so the Biden administration rejiggered the plan — called SAVE (Saving on a Valuable Education) — making it quicker and easier for borrowers to have their debt forgiven through existing loan forgiveness programs, and decreasing monthly payments for many borrowers.

Biden also announced a separate, new student loan forgiveness plan on Monday, under which millions of indebted Americans would have their student loan debt canceled. Under this new program, debt cancellations would be tightly targeted to borrowers most in need. Close to 30 million people could qualify, some for up to $20,000 of student loan debt interest cancellation.

These programs would bring tremendous relief to millions of Americans struggling with student debt, which — unlike other forms of debt — is not automatically dischargeable in bankruptcy. If you run up your credit cards, buy a series of luxury cars, start a failed business or take out a mortgage on a too-pricey house, the American system gives you a way out that does not permanently ruin your financial life. No such luck if, as an 18-year-old fresh out of high school, you sign off on tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to finance an education you’ve been told is absolutely crucial if you want to be a successful or even just a financially stable adult.

Some critiques of student debt relief are valid, like the question of why the best-educated Americans — who tend to be more affluent — should get their debts paid back. Plenty of student debt-holders have well-paying jobs and are seeing a return on their educational investments. These borrowers shouldn’t qualify for a government handout and, under the Biden plan, they wouldn’t.

But adults who owe astronomical sums not just in student loans but in the interest from those loans, and who are low-to-middle income, would get some financial relief. Those who were suckered in by institutions found to have defrauded students or charged them obscene tuition costs when the institution had very low post-college employment rates would also see some benefits from the Biden plan.

Relieving all of these borrowers would free up more of their resources. It could mean more money funneled into the economy (more meals out, more consumer spending), a greater ability to save up for a house, more dollars for working parents to spend on childcare or education — all things that benefit society as a whole.

Enter the GOP. Eighteen states, all of them led by Republicans, have joined one of two lawsuits against the Biden administration over its debt relief plan. “Yet again, the President is unilaterally trying to impose an extraordinarily expensive and controversial policy that he could not get through Congress,” one of the lawsuits says. Why couldn’t student debt relief get through Congress? Because Republicans, and perhaps some conservative Democrats, would no doubt block it. But, according to the Department of Education, “Congress gave the US Department of Education the authority to define the terms of income-driven repayment plans in 1993, and the SAVE plan is the fourth time the Department has used that authority.”

Whether Biden has the authority to put these plans into action is a question for the courts. The more immediate political question, though, is whether student debt relief is an important policy goal. Biden and many Democrats clearly think it is. Republicans generally seem to think it is not, as demonstrated by their lawsuits and their own lack of any comprehensive student debt relief plan.

This Republican obstinance is a potential gift for Biden. Democratic voter tend to be both younger and better-educated, two groups more acutely impacted by student debt. “Joe Biden is trying to relieve your student loan debt but Republicans won’t let him” is a pretty strong message to send to voters who could very much benefit from a loosening of debt’s financial handcuffs. It also plays into the broader case that Democrats are trying to make for Biden — that between Democratic support for abortion rights and Republican threats to democracy, Biden and the Democrats are the party that offers you greater freedoms, fewer constraints and a better life. Republicans? They want to keep you in debt, force you to have babies against your will and install a lying authoritarian in the White House.

One would think this is not a good strategy for Republicans. But they may be playing to their base, too, or at least what they presume that base believes: Americans without college degrees, who are resentful of the people they perceive as over-educated egghead elites, and who like that former president Donald Trump promises to crack down and impose his will. Republicans may well assume this group opposes student debt relief.

But elections are as much about turnout as party perceptions, and generating turnout requires motivating voters. Who is more motivated? Those who generally oppose student debt relief but probably don’t give it all that much thought? Or those whose lives would be radically changed by it?

The Biden administration has a powerful opportunity here. They should maximize it.

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