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Student loan crisis is just as big as climate change

House Democratic Caucus Chairman James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., during an interview in his hideaway in the U.S. Capitol. 

Scott J. Ferrell | Cq-roll Call, Inc. | Getty Images

WASHINGTON, D.C. — On a recent Sunday afternoon, Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., was attending a church service in his hometown of Sumter, South Carolina, when a member of his staff handed him a letter from a constituent.

The man was writing to share the pain his student debt had caused him, and to thank Clyburn and President Joe Biden for their recent actions. After more than three decades of payments, he’d gotten over $100,000 of his debt forgiven.

“My staff tell me these phone calls come in all the time,” Clyburn tells CNBC. “About half of them are crying on the phone about what a relief this is.”

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The Biden administration’s reforms to the government’s student loan forgiveness programs have resulted in more than 3.7 million Americans receiving debt cancellation, for a total of $136 billion in aid. After the Supreme Court blocked the president’s sweeping debt forgiveness plan, which erased up to $20,000 for tens of millions of people, the president directed the U.S. Department of Education to work on a narrower debt relief package that would stand better legal chances.

Clyburn has played no small part in all of this.

It seems that every month the congressman is pushing for more relief for the country’s 40 million student loan borrowers, and he often mentions the issue of education debt in his television news appearances.

Clyburn counts student loan debt as “the biggest” issue facing Americans today, in part because failing to solve it exacerbates other crises.

“You’re not going to solve the climate crisis unless you’ve got well-educated and trained people to do it,” he said. “You’re not going to solve the health care crisis without doctors and nurses. And student loan debt is the best way to go.”

These days, Clyburn is thinking about how student debt could impact the 2024 presidential election. He is worried many voters don’t understand it was the Supreme Court’s conservative majority that ultimately stopped Biden’s biggest plan for forgiveness.

CNBC sat down with the congressman in late January in his office to discuss the student loan crisis and voters. (The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

‘Forgiveness can’t reach everybody’

Annie Nova: At 83, you’re one of the oldest members of Congress. Student debt is largely considered a young person’s issue (although we know it impacts older people, too). Why do you care so much about the subject?

Rep. James Clyburn: I think one of the worst things about politics on this Hill is that everybody reduces everything to the person. I was not put on this earth for my own sake. Sometimes my brother says, ‘Maybe our religious upbringing was a curse.’ And maybe it was. But I don’t ever go to bed at night regretting having lived a day. I regret having to interact with some of the people I interact with.

AN: The Biden administration has forgiven a lot of student debt, but I often hear from borrowers who’ve been left out of the relief. A lot more, they say, still needs to be done.

JC: When I first discussed student loan debt with the president, I had a piece of legislation giving $50,000 in debt elimination to students. Joe Biden would never buy into that.

President Biden's ambitious new plan to help student loan borrowers, explained

AN: Was that number too much?

JC: I didn’t say it was too much. It wasn’t the way he thought it should be done. I found out later, he was right. If I had given $50,000 to someone to pay off a $300,000 debt, they would still owe $250,000. Instead, the president said, ‘Let’s fix these programs that we have.’ Forgiveness can’t reach everybody. What you have to do is have a process that everyone can qualify for.

‘How can you blame Biden for the Supreme Court?’

AN: But the plan Biden did ultimately announce would have forgiven $400 billion in student debt, and impacted tens of millions of people.

JC: How can you blame Biden for the Supreme Court? I don’t see a single woman that blames Biden for the Dobbs decision. [In Dobbs v. Jackson, the justices overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark ruling that established the constitutional right to abortion.] We have a right-wing Supreme Court that is intent on maintaining an underclass.

AN: Do you think voters understand that it was the Supreme Court that blocked the president’s broad forgiveness plan?

JC: No, they don’t. They’re blaming the president for it. I think it would be nice if people said, “To his credit, he tried. But the Supreme Court stopped him. So he went this other route.” You have $136 billion in debt forgiveness, and he’s not supposed to get credit for that? There’s something about Joe Biden that people just don’t give credit to.

AN: So how can you change that ahead of November?

JC: Well, going forward, I’m told by the Department of Education, that every two months for the next four years, another 75,000 people, will be eligible to have their debt forgiven. That’s under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program and income-driven repayment plans.

AN: What would another Trump presidency be like for student loan borrowers?

JC: I’d say to any young person, “Who do you want to be in charge of this country when your future arrives?” This country holds too much promise for us to allow it to go the way of Germany or Italy. All those people paid a hell of a price for taking a gamble on democracy.

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