Sen. Bernie Sanders offered up a plan on Monday to completely eliminate the student loan debt of every American, staking out uncharted territory in the Democratic presidential primary.
The new legislation would cancel $1.6 trillion of student loan undergraduate and graduate debt for approximately 45 million people. His ambitious plan has no eligibility limitations and would be paid for with a new tax on Wall Street speculation.
The proposal goes further than the plan previously unveiled by his Democratic primary rival Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Her debt relief package was subject to income eligibility levels to determine how much relief the average person would receive -- parameters that Warren said were aimed at closing the racial wealth gap. Under the Sanders plan, if you have student debt of any kind it would be canceled the second the legislation is signed into law.
"This proposal completely eliminates student debt in this country and ends the absurdity of sentencing an entire generation, the millennial generation, to a lifetime of debt for the crime of doing the right thing -- and that is going out and getting a higher education," Sanders, flanked by activists and supporters, said at a news conference in Washington on Monday.
Sanders introduced the legislation with Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar and Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who will co-sponsor a pair of House bills that serve as companion legislation to Sanders' Senate plan, was also by his side for the announcement.
"The bottom line is we shouldn't be punishing people for getting to higher education," Sanders said. "It is time to hit the reset button. Under the proposal that we introduced today, all student debt would be canceled in six months."
This rollout comes at a time when second place in Democratic primary polling, behind former Vice President Joe Biden, seems up for grabs -- with Warren rising in recent voter surveys. With this latest, detailed pitch, Sanders is aiming to solidify his credentials as the most progressive candidate in a field that has largely embraced the priorities he brought to a national audience in 2016. The proposal is sure to invite new criticism from Democratic moderates, who have sought to cast themselves as pragmatic alternatives to Sanders' efforts to fundamentally remake the country's economic system.
On the stump and in interviews, Sanders has long spoken about finding ways to relieve the burden of student debt, but this this is his most specific plan to date. He teased the announcement during an event in South Carolina on Saturday night.
"We are going to forgive student debt in this country," Sanders said last weekend. "We have for the first time in the modern history of this country a younger generation that if we don't change it, and we intend to change it, will have a lower standard of living than their parents, more in debt, lower wages than their parents, unable to buy the house that they desire."
The plan is part of a more comprehensive "college for all" program that Sanders has already released in pieces and includes free tuition at all four-year public colleges and universities, as well as community colleges. The broader proposal also includes subsidies to reduce the cost of tuition and fees for low income students at private colleges that historically serve underrepresented communities.
"We will make a full and complete education a human right in America, to which all of our people are entitled," Sanders said on Monday. "This means making public colleges, universities and HBCUs tuition-free and debt-free by tripling the work study program, expanding Pell grants and other financial incentives."
Sanders also talked about his detailed roadmap -- centered on new taxes on Wall Street -- to raise the $2.2 trillion dollars necessary to pay for this program and his other college funding plans. It will include a 0.5% tax on stock trades (or 50 cents for every $100 worth of stock), a 0.1% fee on bonds, and a 0.005% fee on derivatives. Sanders believes that could raise more than $2.4 trillion dollars over the next ten years.
The centrist group Third Way -- a vocal Sanders critic that he recently described as a mouthpiece for "the corporate wing of the Democratic party" -- slammed the proposal before Sanders formally introduced it, calling it "bad policy and bad politics."
"It's a regressive giveaway that primarily benefits upper middle class people who attended elite four year colleges," Lanae Erickson, Third Way's senior vice president for social policy and politics, said in a statement. "And there's nothing about that which will help Democrats appeal to the bulk of black, white, and Latinx voters who don't have a degree."
Sanders has already introduced the Wall Street speculation tax, which he calls the Inclusive Prosperity Act. At an event on Sunday in South Carolina he delivered the political argument for using it to help millions of Americans struggling with student debt.
"Congress voted to bail out the crooks on Wall Street, do you remember that?" he asked the crowd to a chorus of boos. "They provided seven hundred billion in federal loans and in addition trillions of dollars in zero or very low interest loans. So I think the time is now for Wall Street to repay that obligation to the American people. If we could bail out Wall Street, we sure as hell can reduce student debt in this country."