WASHINGTON – The House is poised to pass a bipartisan bill on Wednesday to help student loan recipients escape debts incurred by abusive spouses.
The Senate unanimously approved the legislation in June, so House passage would send the bill to President Joe Biden’s desk.
Congress previously allowed student borrowers to consolidate their loans with a spouse, but for years did not allow them to separate the loans if their circumstances changed. That resulted in thousands of borrowers effectively getting stuck with a debt they didn’t incur themselves.
“The bill we have before us today is simple. It closes the loophole and allows the separation of loans,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) at a House Rules Committee hearing Monday afternoon.
“Victims of domestic violence or economic abuse should never have to pay the debts of their abuser,” he added. “Closing this loophole is just common sense.”
Bill sponsor Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) has told the story of a constituent, a single mom named Sara, whose estranged ex-husband refused to pay off his part of their consolidated loan.
“Sara faced the threat of having her wages as a public school teacher garnished if she did not pay both her and her ex-husband’s portions of their debt,” Warner’s office said in a statement when the Senate passed the bill.
Advocates for survivors of domestic violence, including the National Network to End Domestic Violence, endorsed the legislation.
The bill represents a modest tweak to student loan policy after Biden said he would unilaterally wipe out student debt on a huge scale. Once the new forgiveness policy takes effect, the White House has said that as many as 43 million people could benefit, with borrowers who received Pell Grants qualifying for up to $20,000 in debt cancellation. There are only around 14,000 outstanding consolidated spousal loans, by contrast.
Though the bill had bipartisan backing in the Senate, where it passed without even a roll call vote, House Republicans on the Rules Committee said it needed to be changed before going to the White House for Biden’s signature.
Specifically, they said the bill would take too long for the Department of Education to implement, would expand the role of government in student loans and could be exploited by abusers.
Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), the ranking member on the House Education and Labor Committee, said as currently written, the bill would allow either party in a joint consolidated loan to file for a new loan, potentially leaving their spouse with little control over how much each would owe on the original loan balance.
“In some cases, this could leave the abused spouse with an economic burden that doesn’t belong to that person,” she said.
Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), the chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, said the formula in the bill would make it simple to figure out what share of debt goes to whom.
“If we amend it, and possibly even make it worse, it goes over to the Senate and who knows what happens, if the clock ever starts or if we see the bill again,” he said.
McGovern said if not for House GOP objections, the bill could have been quickly passed as part of a group of routine, non-controversial bills the House votes on each week, skipping the Rules Committee.
“It’s just frustrating that we’re here,” he said.