Even before Elizabeth Warren arrived in the Senate eight years ago, she had warned that “too-big-to-fail” federal student loan giants with lucrative Education Department contracts repeatedly cheat borrowers, leaving them with mountains of crushing debt they can never hope to repay.
As of last week, two that have drawn the most ire from Warren — Navient, formerly known as Sallie Mae, and the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA), which operates the FedLoan program — have both said they plan to exit the federal student loan business.
It wasn’t big news outside of higher education and financial circles, but their departures could result in roughly 15 million borrowers having their loans transferred to other institutions. The thought is that at better-regulated lenders, borrowers will have a greater chance at paying down debt loads that disproportionately weigh down people of color. But, Warren said, the best solution would still be to cancel $50,000 in federal student debt per borrower.
Warren has long said senators have many tools at their disposal, including some that aren’t always obvious, and her role in pressuring Navient and PHEAA is an example of how the Massachusetts senator has figured out how to influence policy at the highest levels and change how systems work.
Warren’s own White House bid failed, and President Joe Biden neither named her as his running mate nor tapped her to be in his Cabinet. But she has still been able to shape the conversation about how government can be used to serve people. She uses her lively and data-laden style to question Biden’s nominees, shepherds her allies into sometimes obscure but important bureaucratic jobs, and cheers when the administration adopts versions of the progressive policies she championed during her own campaign.
Plus, on issues on which Warren and Biden are still at odds — such as taking executive action to cancel $50,000 in federal student loan debt — she can pressure the White House from the outside.
Warren, a bankruptcy expert and former law professor, learned to play the outside game after she was blocked from leading the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), the agency she created for President Barack Obama. In a recent interview, The 19th asked her if she would have ended up running for president — or be in politics at all — if she had been able to remain at her brainchild.
“No, not a chance,” Warren said without hesitation. “If they let me run that agency, I would have been a cat in the creamery, so happy to stay and do that work.”
“I never saw myself as someone who had either any interest, or any skill, to run for elected office,” she continued. “I literally only thought about it when I got pushed out of the CFPB and was heading home to Massachusetts, where there was a Republican incumbent senator and nobody on the horizon who looked like they had a credible chance of taking him on.”
Instead, as a senator, Warren pushed Obama regulators for increased financial oversight and dressed down Trump administration nominees for potential conflicts of interest. Now, with her party in the White House and in charge of both congressional chambers, Warren’s subtler impact on policies such as Biden’s proposed $3.5 trillion Build Back Better plan being negotiated by Democrats is beginning to crystallize.
Warren has long said that “personnel is policy,” and the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial board recently lamented that there are so many of her alumni and ideological counterparts in administration posts that “President Warren’s Government” could begin a “regulatory onslaught.”
Warren alumni across Washington include Bharat Ramamurti on Biden’s National Economic Council; Julie Siegel at the Treasury Department; Maggie Thomas at the Domestic Climate Policy Office; Sasha Baker at the National Security Council; Rohit Chopra at the CFPB; Wally Adeyemo at the Treasury Department; and campaign manager Roger Lau at the Democratic National Committee.
The larger universe of Warren’s ideological allies includes Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a co-chair of her 2020 campaign; Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan; Jonathan Kanter, nominated for assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s antitrust division; and Timothy Wu, an adviser to the president on competition and technology. Biden last week nominated Saule Omarova to head the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which oversees the nation’s largest banks.
Warren has been able to build a loyal force of these “ideological warriors,” as one Republican Senate staffer put it, because as her own political stature grew, she retained the collaborative spirit she showed as a professor. Warren employs a gentler version of the Socratic method used in law schools to make sure every member of her team has a chance to weigh in. Former staffers remain in her orbit for years as informal collaborators, gathering for happy hours they call “Wanda Wednesdays” after a favorite bartender. More than a couple of her young presidential campaign supporters emerged from the 2020 fight with wonky goth metal tattoos inspired by her creation of CFPB.
Rep. Katie Porter, one of Warren’s law students and another campaign co-chair, said that academia can be “very territorial,” and it is often the same way in Washington, where “‘it’s my bill’ or ‘it’s my committee,’ but Elizabeth has always been gracious and generous in empowering other people to really be in partnership.”
“I think you see that in how she’s gone about building coalitions and creating a really loyal group of people who love to work with her, because she’s so about just getting things done, and she wants to spend her time on that, not on whether you did it, or whether she did it, but on what we got done,” the California lawmaker added.
As Jon Donenberg, Warren’s chief of staff in the Senate, put it: “The way we’re keeping score is: Does the world look better today than it did yesterday?”
Though Warren is solidly in the left wing of the Democratic Party, her willingness to find small patches of common ground sometimes leads to partnerships with unlikely allies. Late last month, for example, Warren introduced a bill with Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas to prevent forum-shopping in bankruptcy cases. “She’s a genuine expert on bankruptcy, she wrote the book,” he told The 19th.
When a supporter in Massachusetts asked Warren last month if she would run for president again in 2024 or seek a future position in Biden’s Cabinet, she replied: “Right now the work in the Senate is the right work, and this is the right fight for me to be in.”
Eight years in the Senate, where lawmakers often serve for decades, is a blip, and as a relatively junior senator, Warren has never had an influential committee gavel of her own. But as of earlier this year, Warren is in charge of two subpanels that she said will be “two more critical tools” to push for economic and racial justice.
When Warren held her first hearing in April as the chair of the Banking Committee’s economic policy subpanel, she hauled in Navient and PHEAA’s top executives, and showed how she could turn the obscure subcommittee that traditionally conducts amorphous policy explorations into an oversight panel with teeth.
Warren noted that Navient was “dead last in borrower satisfaction.” She asked CEO John Remondi about a series of audits and state-level investigations into its practices and the years it took for the company to pay back $22 million it had overcharged the government. She told him that Navient should be fired, and he should be too.
Warren also volleyed questions at PHEAA CEO James Steeley about its 98 percent rejection rate for a student loan forgiveness program designed to help people who go into public service work such as teaching or firefighting.
“It seems clear to me that PHEAA presides over a so-called public service loan forgiveness program that has proven itself nearly incapable of ever actually granting public servants any loan forgiveness,” Warren said.
Warren asked Steeley if the Education Department had ever penalized his company for “its errors and mismanagement.” No, he said, they had not. But that wasn’t entirely true, the Education Department later said. Steeley was asked to come to a follow-up hearing to account for his “false and misleading testimony.”
Before that could happen, PHEAA, which services 8.5 million borrowers, announced that it would not seek to renew its federal contract. Navient, which services 6 million borrowers, last week asked the Education Department to begin winding down its own federal student loan program.
Richard Cordray, who heads the Education Department’s office on student financial aid, promised borrowers that the agency will use “all of the tools in its toolbox” to help PHEAA and Navient smoothly transition loans to other servicers. It is also undertaking a larger overhaul of the country’s $1.6 trillion loan portfolio with an eye on limiting the emergence of the type of too-big-to-fail institutions Warren has warned about.
If Cordray’s approach sounds similar to Warren’s, it might be because the two have a relationship that dates back more than a decade, when Obama nominated him to the CFPB after it became clear that Warren could not be confirmed. At the CFPB, he sued Navient, saying they failed borrowers. It was Cordray who wrote Warren to point out inconsistencies in Steeley’s testimony. Though he has not explicitly staked out a position on debt cancellation, he could prove to be a partner for people who believe it can be accomplished administratively.
Also at the April hearing were two home-state allies who have been helping Warren make the case for canceling student debt: Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey and Rep. Ayanna Pressley. Healey has made student loan forgiveness an enforcement focus, securing a settlement against PHEAA earlier this year. Pressley was another of Warren’s campaign co-chairs and among the progressive House lawmakers who pushed to pause student loan payments in the COVID-19 relief package.
It was but one game Warren has won in a broader three-dimensional chess match to press Biden to use his executive authority to cancel up to $50,000 in student debt per borrower. Biden has taken some steps to expand loan forgiveness, and he supports legislation to cancel federal student loan debt of $10,000 per borrower, but Warren has repeatedly called on him to do more.
She has found a powerful ally in Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who has signed onto a bicameral resolution with Warren, Pressley and other progressive lawmakers saying Biden should take executive action. Warren held up the confirmation of James Kvaal as an Education undersecretary earlier this summer until the administration committed to step up oversight of loan servicers and make key policy changes. In March, Warren and Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey successfully added a provision to the coronavirus-related American Rescue Plan that makes any future student loan forgiveness tax free, eliminating an often-cited hurdle to large-scale debt cancellation.
Other potential Warren allies within Biden’s Education Department also include Julie Magretta Morgan, who advised Warren on debt cancellation during her presidential campaign, and Toby Merrill, a founder of Harvard’s Project on Predatory Student Lending, who sent a 2020 memo to Warren outlining how an administration could cancel federal student loan debt.
Progressive Change Campaign Committee co-founder Adam Green, who supported Warren’s presidential bid, said she is “quietly exercising power to influence the executive branch and legislative policies, and then doing surgical and strategic public plays on a couple of key issues, and the biggest one, I think, has been canceling student debt.”
During a recent appearance at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, a student who said she had “significant student loan debt” asked Warren about loan forgiveness. Before launching into a statistics-filled pitch about the impact this would have on borrowers, specifically those of color, Warren used her metaphorical megaphone to make clear just how simple she thinks the solution is.
“One man, who’s named Joe Biden, could, with one signature, cancel student loan debt for $50,000 for everybody who’s got it, he could do this,” Warren said.
Warren noted that 40 percent of people with student loan debt do not have a college diploma because they “tried and it didn’t work out.” Twenty years after borrowing, the average White person owes 5 percent of their original loan; the average Black person owes 95 percent. “We cancel $50,000 of student loan debt and the Black-White wealth gap among those with student loan debt shrinks by 25 points, the White-Latinx wealth gap shrinks by 27 points,” she said.
“Joe Biden says he cares about racial equity, he says he cares about inequality, he says he cares about people who didn’t graduate from college, then by golly, I believe him on all three of those, but the best thing he can do is cancel $50,000 of student loan debt and he could do it now, help me on this,” Warren urged.
During her presidential bid, Warren released a slew of policy proposals — “I have a plan for that!” — but her very first was one for universal child care. The week before Biden’s first speech to Congress in April, when he was expected to outline his domestic agenda, Warren reintroduced it as legislation to authorize $700 billion for universal child care and early childhood education over 10 years. She urged Biden to make the same commitment.
When Biden delivered his 100-day address, he promised that “quality, affordable child care” would be a crucial part of what is now known as the $3.5 trillion Build Back Better Act. It is currently the focus of intense Democratic negotiations in the House and Senate, where they are trying to pass it in a once-a-year, party-line vote that could be tanked by even one defector.
“It will guarantee — what I’m proposing in legislation, it will guarantee that low- to middle-income families will pay no more than 7 percent of their income for high-quality care for children up to the age of 5. The most hard-pressed working families won’t have to spend a dime,” Biden said.
Warren, one of the lawmakers in attendance for the socially distanced address, pumped her fist in the air.
Though the two plans have some structural similarities, Biden’s calls for a $450 billion investment, and would provide universal pre-kindergarten, but not universal child care, falling short of Warren’s goals. Warren told The 19th she sees the current political conversation about child care as one of her presidential campaign’s legacies. (The other is her proposed “ultra-millionaire” tax of two cents on each dollar of wealth beyond $50 million — a policy that Biden does not back but experts agree has shaped the Democratic conversation about taxing income versus wealth).
“Representation is why we’re talking about child care, nationally. If I were the only woman in the Senate, if I hadn’t run for president and beaten the drum on child care every single day for 14 months, then it would probably be another decade before the opportunity to pass universal child care was in front of us,” she said.
“It’s important to raise the visibility of child care, and its importance, so that if the knives come out, child care is not the place where the deepest cuts are made. So a big part of what I’m doing one-on-one is reminding every Democrat that I can why child care is so important,” she added.
Warren’s child care proposal stems from her now well-known origin story that became the basis for her presidential campaign. She was a young grade school teacher forced out of the job during her first pregnancy who cobbled together part-time child care and went to law school. When she graduated visibly pregnant with her second child — “You will discover a pattern to these stories!” — she found that her prospects at law firms had “evaporated.” Warren was able to teach law in Texas, and eventually at Harvard University, because her beloved Aunt Bee left Oklahoma with “seven suitcases and a Pekingese named Buddy” and stayed with Warren for 16 years.
Her team was floored by the response to her child care proposal in the “selfie line” at an early campaign event. Warren had been able to translate a wonky proposal with percentages and scales into a story that parents could understand. The grassroots support helped propel Warren, who had sworn off big dollar donors, to the top tier in a crowded pack of Democratic contenders.
Since ending her campaign, Warren has not stopped talking about the issue that kicked off her White House bid. She continues to make the case that investments in child care must be significant enough to be truly transformational. “Persist” — her most recent book, published this May — is part memoir, part political call to arms. In it, Warren lays out her own 100-day post-election plan through the lenses she sees herself: mother, teacher, planner, fighter, learner and woman. Throughout, Warren makes the case for universal child care on moral, equitable and economic terms.
Democrats must make a series of make-or-break decisions in the coming days, and they are still haggling over a price tag that will be enough to finance key progressive priorities while capping spending at a level palatable to moderate lawmakers in both chambers.
While Warren’s ultra-millionaire tax is thus far not on the table, she and Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent, are pushing for what is known as a “real corporate profits” tax of 7 percent on companies that report more than $100 million in earnings to investors. It’s designed to ensure companies like Amazon pay their fair share, she said. As the Finance Committee crunches potential revenue raisers, its chair, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, told The 19th he is consulting with Warren “practically every day.”
In February 2020, as Warren’s presidential campaign faltered, her supporters started sharing a message on Twitter: “BLOOD AND TEETH.” It was an oblique reference to Warren’s push to build the CFPB. “My first choice is to build a strong consumer agency. My second choice is no agency at all and plenty of blood and teeth left on the floor,” she had said. The idiom was used to telegraph that if Warren’s campaign was going down, her team wouldn’t be leaving without a fight.
Warren was out of the race within a few weeks but not before landing bruising blows on some of her opponents in the next two debates. Her exit set up a Democratic contest between Biden and Vermont’s liberal Sen. Bernie Sanders, the two White men who were thought to be the frontrunners when the race began. In her book, Warren recounts how the morning after her campaign ended, she opened her door to find a single-word message chalked on the sidewalk in two-foot-high letters: PERSIST.
“I looked at the message on the sidewalk for a long time. As I did, I gave up any thought of wallowing. Then I said something to myself that millions of people have said to themselves after a painful loss: Suck it up and get back to work,” she writes.
It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that the woman who wrote that “during a crisis, the door to change opens just a crack” remains optimistic about making transformational changes to child care and other policies even as progressives face a blood-and-teeth moment in Washington. If Democrats can overcome moderate opposition within their own party, there is a sliver of a chance for a once-in-a-generation reboot of the country’s domestic programs that hasn’t been seen since President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal.
At the end of the conversation, The 19th asked Warren to name what she considers her most significant achievement since ending her presidential bid.
“Ask me this again in a few more weeks,” she said.