A student debt cancellation advocate who works closely with Congress added that their concession amounts to a cop-out given the near impossibility of a bill passing in the evenly split Senate. Why not, the advocate asked, just try an executive order and see what happens?

The idea of simply passing the executive order and letting the Supreme Court decide is hardly an abstraction; Biden did just that with his recent executive order imposing a moratorium on evictions. And the current pause in student debt collection at the federal level suggests that the executive has significant authority. Biden issued the eviction moratorium order following pressure from progressive members of Congress, led by Rep. Cori Bush, who chose not to return home on vacation and instead took to protesting outside the Capitol in hopes of addressing the looming eviction crisis.

Though Pelosi says she supports student debt cancellation via congressional legislation — a position shared by the Swigs — her statement last week represents a departure from her previous silence on the issue. “The president can’t do it — so that’s not even a discussion,” Pelosi said during a news conference, referring to a presidential executive order to cancel student debt. She continued: “Suppose … your child just decided they, at this time, [do] not want to go to college, but you’re paying taxes to forgive somebody else’s obligations. You may not be happy about that.”

Pelosi’s statement came as a shock to many in Congress, with some wondering if perhaps she had misspoken, as one staffer told The Intercept. But student debt relief advocates are more cynical. “The only reason she was for it [legislatively] was because Steve and Mary asked her to,” said one prominent member of the student debt cancellation activist community with direct knowledge of discussions between Pelosi and the Swigs on the subject. (A second source confirmed the discussions.)

Drew Hammill, deputy chief of staff for Pelosi, said in an email, “The Swigs have been family friends for decades” — but denied that the Swigs directed her position on student debt cancellation. “The statement the Speaker made was in response to a question from a reporter, not a proactive announcement.” He also stressed that Pelosi’s policy staff has not corresponded with the Swigs on this issue but did not comment on whether Pelosi herself had. “Our policy staff that work on this issue have had no conversations or correspondence with the Swigs on this issue.”

“The Speaker’s response to a reporter’s question was based on her staff’s analysis of the President’s authorities,” Hammill said. “We understand that the Department of Justice is reviewing what authorities the President may have in this regard and the Speaker would support the President using any authority he believes he has to address the crisis of student debt in our country. The Speaker very much wants to have as much forgiveness as possible because she believes it is holding back so many in our country. It must, however, be done in a way that is upheld in the courts.”

Political operatives familiar with the Swigs describe an often well-meaning couple who have donated to worthy causes but are rendered almost comically out of touch by their extraordinary wealth. A source pointed to the Swigs’ own account, published in Salon in 2018, of how they only ever learned that student debt existed recently, after their daughter told them about the plight of an artist friend saddled with crushing debt: “It began with a story. It wasn’t an unusual one. … But it was new to two of us when we first heard it from our daughter, four years ago. It was the story of a gifted young artist, a single mother who was forced to set aside her dreams and her gifts to work a retail job so that she could pay back her student loans.”

Steven and Mary Swig did not respond to a request for comment.