Monday, March 12, 2018

Fed Chairman Jerome Powell says he can't explain why student loans can't be discharged in bankruptcy: An astonishing admission that the emperor wears no clothes

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell made an astonishing admission at a Senate Banking Committee hearing last month.  He said he could not explain why federal law does not allow distressed debtors to discharge their student loans in bankruptcy.

"I think alone among all kinds of debt, we don’t allow student loan debt to be discharged in bankruptcy," Powell said. "I'd be at a loss to explain why that should be the case."

Powell also acknowledged that mounting student indebtedness could injure the American economy. "It’s not something you can pick up in the data right now," Powell told the Banking Committee, "but at this goes on, and as student [debt] gets larger and larger, it absolutely could hold back growth." 

Fed Chairman Powell is not the first senior Washington official to admit that the student loan program could hurt the American economy. Former Fed Chair Janet Yellen made a similar observation in 2014. "The [student] debt loads certainly are high enough that they may play a role in, for example, making it hard for people to buy first homes, to build a down payment,” Yellen said at a hearing of the Senate Budget Committee.  

But Powell's remarks last month is the first time a senior federal official has candidly admitted that he cannot explain why the Federal Bankruptcy Code makes it very difficult for overburdened college debtors to discharge their student loans through bankruptcy.

In essence, Chairman Powell's surprisingly candid remark is very much like the children's story about the emperor who wore no clothes. Everyone knew the emperor wasn't wearing clothes, but no one was brave enough to state the obvious until a child explained: "The emperor is naked!"

I think Chairman Powell's frank observation may be just the nudge our government needs to honestly address the fact that millions of Americans who took out student loans in good faith simply can't pay them back.

How can the Chairman's remarks be exploited?

I. Alert the bankruptcy judges to the Fed Chair's remarks

First, all student debtors who attempt to their discharge student loans in bankruptcy should notify the bankruptcy judge--either in the complaint itself or in a pleading--that a top economic official in the federal government cannot explain why honest student debtors are barred from shedding their burdensome student loans through bankruptcy.

Powell's observation stands in stark contradiction to the stance taken by the Department of Education and the student-loan debt collectors that have fought bankruptcy relief for almost all student debtors.  For example, DOE opposed bankruptcy relief for a quadriplegic debtor in the Myhre case, and Educational Credit Management Corporation (ECMC) fought Janet Roth, an elderly woman in poor health who was living on less than $800 a month, all the way to the Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel.

How can DOE and ECMC defend their heartless behavior when the Chair of the Federal Reserve says he can't explain why our government puts onerous restrictions on bankruptcy relief  for insolvent student debtors? Powell's remark might be just the piece of evidence bankruptcy courts need to begin discharging student loans in bankruptcy under more humane standards than currently prevail.

II. Powell's statement should spur a bipartisan effort in Congress to amend the Bankruptcy Code

Second, Powell's admission should prompt Republicans and Democrats to join in a bipartisan push to amend the Bankruptcy Code to remove the "undue hardship" provision in 11 U.S.C. sec. 523 (a)(8). Representatives Katko and Delaney have filed a bill to remove the "undue hardship" clause from the Bankruptcy Code, but so far the bill has gone nowhere.  Senators Warren and McCaskill have introduced a bill to stop the federal government from garnishing Social Security payments to insolvent, elderly student debtors, but that bill too has gone nowhere.

Surely Powell's statement should be all the encouragement Republicans and Democrats need to revise the Bankruptcy Code so that student loans are dischargeable in bankruptcy like any other consumer debt.

Fed Reserve Chair Jerome Powell


Joseph Lawler. Federal Reserve chairman: Mounting student debt could hold back economic growth. Washington Examiner, March 1, 2018.

Joseph Lawler. Janet Yellen warns student debt may be holding back housing recovery. Washington Examiner, May 8, 2014.

Representative John Delaney press release. Delaney and Katko File Legislation to Help Americans Struggling with Student Loan Debt. May 5, 2017.

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