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• President Joe Biden’s student debt forgiveness plan didn’t pass Congress. Instead, he is seeking to implement it by administrative action.
• Although online applications for student debt relief are now being accepted, a court ruling is blocking the plan from going forward, including any monetary payouts. The long-term legal outlook for Biden’s plan is, at best, uncertain.
Just two months after he announced a new administration effort to forgive between $10,000 and $20,000 of student loan debt, President Joe Biden got key details of the plan wrong at a public event.
Biden was speaking during a televised forum sponsored by Now This, a liberal online media outlet. Footage of the event, held at the White House, was posted online Oct. 23.
At one point, the discussion turned to Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan.
As Biden explained it, "What we’ve provided for is, if you went to school, if you qualified for a Pell Grant … you qualify for $20,000 in debt forgiveness. Secondly, if you don’t have one of those loans, you just get $10,000 written off. It’s passed. I got it passed by a vote or two. And it’s in effect. And already a total of, I think it’s now 13 million people, have applied for that service."
But there are two key problems with Biden’s statement: how the policy came to be and whether it’s "in effect."
Biden didn’t go through Congress to pursue student debt relief. Technically, Biden didn’t issue an executive order, either.
Rather, his administration drew on the HEROES Act, a law passed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks that allows relief from student loan payments during times of war or national emergency.
The Donald Trump and Biden administrations repeatedly used the law to pause payments on student loans since the coronavirus pandemic — classified as a national emergency — started in early 2020. (Under Biden’s debt relief plan, that pause would end in January 2023.)
In a legal opinion, Biden’s Education Department broke with the Trump-era department in advising that the same law could be used not only to pause payments, but also to forgive debt.
Despite Biden’s comments, the plan did not pass Congress — by one vote, two votes or any other number of votes.
If Biden had chosen to enact his policy through congressional action, the second part of his statement — that the policy is "in effect" — might be accurate. For now, however, it’s not.
Legal experts have long raised questions about whether the Supreme Court, particularly in its current ideological configuration, would permit such debt forgiveness based on administrative action, rather than by congressional consent.
A majority of justices might be swayed by an argument that the Education Department is reading too much authority into the HEROES Act’s text, Ryan D. Doerfler, a Harvard University law professor, told PolitiFact in August. In several recent cases, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority has opposed agencies’ interpretations of "sweeping or otherwise surprising grants of authority," he said.
Biden’s plan is wending its way through the courts. The most recent action — by the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals on Oct. 21 — put Biden’s plan on hold following a challenge by six Republican-led states.
That’s not a final ruling by any stretch; the Supreme Court has already declined one opportunity to temporarily block a different lawsuit challenging the policy.
Although more than 22 million loan recipients have signed up for relief so far through a government portal, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre acknowledged in a statement after the appeals court ruling that the court’s action "prevents debt from being discharged until the court makes a decision." With the payouts to borrowers in limbo, it’s inaccurate to say the program is "in effect."
And even if the appeals court hadn’t ruled to temporarily block the plan, the legal uncertainty surrounding the proposal means it would be premature to say the policy is "in effect."
The White House told PolitiFact that Biden was referring to the Inflation Reduction Act, "which reduced the deficit by hundreds of billions of dollars, creating room for other crucial programs." That legislation — which included provisions that allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices, extend Affordable Care Act subsidies, impose higher taxes on the largest corporations and tackle climate change — passed the House and Senate on a party-line vote, without any Republican votes.
Biden said that student loan forgiveness is "passed. I got it passed by a vote or two. And it’s in effect."
He’s wrong on both counts. The plan didn’t pass Congress; he is seeking to implement it by administrative action. And although online applications are being processed, a court ruling is blocking the plan from proceeding. The long-term legal outlook for Biden’s plan is uncertain at best.
We rate the statement False.
Karine Jean-Pierre, statement, Oct. 21, 2022
Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, "Everything You Need to Know About Student Debt Cancellation," Aug. 25, 2022
Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, "New Student Debt Changes Will Cost Half a Trillion Dollars," Aug. 24, 2022
NPR, "Biden's student debt relief plan is temporarily blocked. Here's what you need to know," Oct. 22, 2022
NPR, "The Supreme Court won't block the student loan debt relief program, at least for now," Oct. 20, 20227
FactCheck.org, "Biden’s Student Loan Forgiveness Gaffe," Oct. 24, 2022
CNN, "Fact check: Biden falsely claims he got student debt forgiveness passed by Congress," Oct. 24, 2022
PolitiFact, "Is Joe Biden’s student debt forgiveness plan legal?" Aug. 30, 2022
PolitiFact, "Biden orders $10,000 to $20,000 in student loan debt forgiveness," Aug. 24, 2022
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