Rep. Burgess Owens to lead congressional hearing on ‘unlawful’ student loan forgiveness program

The Utah Republican, who has filed for bankruptcy protection multiple times, said ‘debt cannot be canceled.’

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Burgess Owens at the Capitol building in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023.

Utah’s Rep. Burgess Owens will chair a congressional hearing on the Biden administration’s student loan forgiveness plan later this week.

The program, which cancels up to $20,000 of student loan debt for tens of millions of borrowers, is currently on hold pending a ruling from the Supreme Court.

When the GOP took control of the House following the 2022 midterms, Owens was tapped to chair the Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Development. He has titled Thursday’s hearing “Breaking the System: Examining the Implications of Biden’s Student Loan Policies for Students and Taxpayers.”

Owens highlighted the upcoming hearing on social media Monday afternoon.

“We are holding hearings to examine Joe Biden’s unlawful executive action to transfer hundreds of billions of dollars in student debt onto the American taxpayer,” Owens tweeted from his personal account.

In a press release, Owens telegraphed how the hearing would play out, arguing that President Joe Biden has no authority to cancel student debt unilaterally.

“Debt cannot be canceled, only transferred from those who borrowed to those who did not,” Owens said. “Creating an offramp for responsibility, driving up college costs, disincentivizing real loan reform, and forcing hard-working American taxpayers to pay for someone else’s loans is nothing more than a backdoor attempt at free college with abysmal implications for students, taxpayers, and our economy.”

Now in his second term as a member of Congress, Owens has been one of the most vocal opponents of student loan forgiveness among Utah’s delegation in Washington. When President Joe Biden first announced the program last summer, Owens said it was unconstitutional and would “aggravate inflation and add $60 billion to our country’s deficit.” When a legal challenge to the policy was elevated to the Supreme Court, Owens signed on to an amicus brief urging the program be overturned.

During his first campaign in 2020, Owens was dogged by claims that he had filed for bankruptcy protection multiple times. Federal court records show Owens filed for bankruptcy five times. In 1991, Owens filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection in New York. No court documents were available for this claim. In 2005, Owens again filed for Chapter 7 protection in Pennsylvania with creditors claiming $1.7 million in debts owed. The case was discharged in 2005 after over $200,000 was paid. The remaining three Chapter 13 filings by Owens were dismissed.

Owens does appear to have some skin in the game on the student loan issue. On his latest personal financial disclosure, Owens lists a student loan taken out in 2001 for his daughter to attend Syracuse University. Owens says the balance on the loan is between $50,000 and $100,000.

Owens’ office did not respond to questions about his daughter’s student loan or his previous bankruptcies.

Owens is not alone among Utah’s congressional delegation opposed to student loan forgiveness. Last year, Sen. Mitt Romney called the proposed debt cancellation a “bribe,” while Sen. Mike Lee suggested the move was a politically motivated giveaway.

Earlier this year, Lee and Romney were among 40 Republicans in the Senate who filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court supporting the legal challenge to Biden’s student debt relief plan.