Many Americans have long held perceptions that corporate, wealthy interests and lobbyists hold too much power over policymaking, contributing to distrust in the federal government. Democratic, Republican, and independent voters have all expressed support for cleaning up political corruption.
Transparency around lobbying is important “because in a democracy, you view it now have to have trust in the institutions that are making your laws,” Thurber said. “If you’ve got all kinds of vested, narrow interests, having an influence and you don’t know about it, it really undermines democracy, fundamentally.”
Republicans balk at broad student-debt forgiveness, saying Americans would bear the brunt of the costs in the form of lost government revenue from loan payments. Canceling $10,000 in federal student debt per borrower would cost about $373 billion, according to Brookings. On the other hand, Democrats backing student-debt cancellation say the move would stimulate the economy and decrease the country’s racial wealth gap.
Both sides – those in favor of debt cancellation and those against – have pushed Biden to act in their favor. Yet substantial progress on student-debt reform under his administration could ultimately depend on which competing force wins out.
“Money alone doesn’t always counteract popular organization for a particular position,” Thurber told Insider. “Money does buy access. It doesn’t always buy the policy that you want though.”
Grassroots activism can prove effective if done correctly, experts say. Social-media campaigns, on-the-ground advocacy, advertising, connections on Capitol Hill and the White House, and clear messaging, are strategies that can influence policy decisions, Thurber said.
In the student-debt arena, some of that campaigning has paid off. For instance, under immense public pressure, Biden extended the loan-payment pause, set to end in February, another 90 days until May 1.
At least 18 nonbusiness organizations, such as the Bipartisan Policy Center’s partner BPC Action, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the American Federation of Teachers, lobbied for student-debt cancellation in 2021, OpenSecrets found. A Bipartisan Policy Center spokesperson says the organization has not advocated for blanket loan forgiveness, but rather for Congress to address the root causes of the student debt problem.
Standing against the student-loan companies is a slew of advocacy groups, labor unions, and nonprofits, as well as dozens of Democratic lawmakers who have championed the issue
Once a far-fetched idea, student-debt forgiveness has gone mainstream in recent years, as the debt climbs to historic highs, borrowers struggle to pay their loans, and political candidates, including Biden, promote policies to address the crisis. Americans appear to be on board, with a majority of respondents repeatedly saying the government should cancel at least some of the $1.7 trillion debt, according to polling.
“Sometimes the public good wins and overcomes campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures. It’s rare, but sometimes it does,” Thurber said.
Forgiving the debt could energize voters ahead of this year’s midterms and potentially offer Biden a boost to his approval ratings, which have slumped to 41% amid inflation woes and the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.
Biden stalls on a campaign pledge
When pressed on the president’s failure to enact $10,000 in student-debt cancellation, the Biden administration has recycled a response: touting already-implemented relief, deferring to Congress, and at times sidestepping the issue.
“The President supports Congress providing $10,000 in debt relief. And he continues to look into what debt relief actions can be taken administratively,” a White House spokesperson said in a statement to Insider.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, two leading Democrats supporting student-debt cancellation, have struck down the idea of crafting a bill to cancel student debt, saying such legislation would not succeed in today’s partisan Congress.