- Over a dozen Democratic members of Congress who have supported student loan cancellation owe up to roughly $1.5 million combined in their own or a family member’s educational debt, according to a Daily Caller News Foundation review of financial disclosures.
- The Biden administration is reportedly mulling over a policy to forgive student loan debt for millions of borrowers and it is unclear whether income limits would be included.
- “When Members have these type of connections to issues they are directly advocating for, it leads to citizens fairly questioning whether members are advocating for the public good or their own personal interests,” said Kendra Arnold, executive director of the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, a watchdog group aiming to uphold ethics in government.
More than a dozen Democratic members of Congress who have urged President Joe Biden to forgive student loans reported over $1 million in educational debt, according to a Daily Caller News Foundation review of financial disclosures.
The 13 Democratic members, who are an average of 46 years old, reported the debts in 2021 and 2020. Individual debts range from as little as $15,000 to as much as $250,000, for a combined total of up to roughly $1.5 million.
The lawmakers have all supported at least some degree of federal student loan cancellation, a policy the Biden administration is reportedly considering. This includes New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who owes up to $50,000 worth and has repeatedly tweeted about the issue, and also Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who owes up to $100,000 and has called cancelling student debt “a racial justice issue.”
New York Rep. Grace Meng, who along with other Democrats in March demanded Biden forgive student loans “to address racial and economic equity issues,” disclosed in 2021 that her spouse owes up to $250,000 in educational debt.
The Biden administration may limit cancellation for people who earned $150,000 in the prior year — or married couples filing jointly who earned less than $300,000 in the prior year — but it remains uncertain how the cancellation plan could be implemented. Members make a base salary of $174,000 per year.
“When Members have these type of connections to issues they are directly advocating for, it leads to citizens fairly questioning whether members are advocating for the public good or their own personal interests,” Kendra Arnold, executive director of the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, a watchdog group aiming to uphold ethics in government, told the DCNF.
Biden’s plan would reportedly waive away a minimum of $10,000 per borrower. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has called on the president to cancel $50,000 of debt, but Biden claimed in April he is “not considering” an amount that high.
Student loan forgiveness is good, actually
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) November 16, 2020
Members who have backed debt cancellation while reporting student loans for themselves includes Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, California Reps. Jimmy Gomez and Nanette Barragan, Pennsylvania Rep. Brendan Boyle, Connecticut Rep. Jahana Hayes, Florida Rep. Darren Soto and Texas Rep. Veronica Escobar.
The members who have backed debt cancellation while reporting loans through a spouse or child in 2020 and 2021 include Meng, Escobar, California Rep. Salud Carbajal, Georgia Rep. Nikema Williams, and Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee.
Nine of the members reported debt through a federal servicer, meaning the loans are sponsored by the federal government. It is unclear for seven members whether their loans are federal or private because the loan servicers give out both kinds.
However, it is extremely likely some of the congressional debt listed from servicers that give out both federal and private loans includes money tied to the Department of Education given over 90% of all student loans are federal, according to two student loan industry experts who spoke to the DCNF.
“Almost every large balance loan today is very likely to be a federal loan given the unlimited borrowing the government allows in their PLUS loan program,” said Scott Buchanan, executive director of Student Loan Servicing Alliance, the only trade group representing student loan servicers nationwide advocating policymakers to improve borrower experiences and ensure best practices amongst servicers.
“So when you look at any sample group of borrowers and don’t know exactly what kind of loan they have, you can bet with some degree of certainty that they are almost all federal student loans,” he added.
Another expert — a senior employee at a major student loan servicer who was granted anonymity to speak candidly — said with near 100% certainty that some of the reported congressional debt from private servicers would include federal loans. The employee said they would be shocked if a congressman or any borrower took out thousands of strictly private loans, which typically have a higher interest rate.
“Additionally, borrowers with loans from the early 2000s could have FFELP loans, which are privately owned but backed by the government, and are serviced by companies like Navient and Nelnet,” said the employee. “Those loans also may ultimately be eligible for forgiveness — depending on the actions of the White House.”
Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar reported in 2021 up to $50,000 in student debt for herself through Nelnet Loan Services. While the company services private loans, nearly 90% of all Nelnet loans are federal, the company said in a 2021 report.
Omar spearheaded letters in 2021 and 2022 to Biden and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona demanding action on student loan forgiveness. She called for the government to “abolish student loan debt” in 2020.
Abolish student loan debt.
— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) August 28, 2020
Similarly, Georgia Rep. Nikema Williams reported in 2021 that her spouse has up to $250,000 of student loan debt through Navient and College Foundation — which service both federal and private loans. She joined Omar in the 2021 letter and said in December of that year the U.S. must “close the racial #wealthgap.”
— Nikema Williams (@NikemaWilliams) November 4, 2021
“I don’t have the disclosure in front of me so I don’t know exactly which loans you’re speaking of because I have a lot of loans and my husband has a lot of loans,” Williams, who did not respond to follow-up requests for comment that included a link to her financial disclosure, told the DCNF. “I don’t have it in front of me. I am in a car to take my son to karate.”
Republican North Carolina Rep. Virginia Foxx, the ranking member on the House education and labor committee, told the DCNF Biden’s loan forgiveness plan is a “scam” and Democratic members see it “as an all you can eat buffet.”
“From political appointees in the Biden White House to Democrat members of Congress, men and women are lining up with their palms outstretched to get a piece of the pie – even if it means pinning their debt on hardworking taxpayers,” said Foxx, who along with Republican Kentucky Rep. James Comer demanded the Office of Government Ethics in June probe possible conflicts of interest for White House staffers who may benefit from debt cancellation.
Republican Michigan Rep. Lisa McClain, who is also on the House education and labor committee, told the DCNF it appears members are “using their power” to cancel debts and it “seems like a big conflict of interest.”
Offices for other members who have supported student loan forgiveness and reported debt on financial disclosures did not respond to requests for comment.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Josh Hypes contributed to this story.
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