Johnson, a longtime financial services industry executive before joining the administration in 2017, is proposing to cancel up to $50,000 in student loan debt for each student — and provide up to $50,000 in tax credits for Americans who already paid off their student loans. He also wants to replace federal student loans with a $50,000 grant that students could use to enroll at public or private colleges as well as vocational schools.
Johnson said he had officially applied to Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp for the appointment to replace Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), who is resigning at the end of the year. He said he submitted an application through the online portal that Kemp has set up to attract interested candidates. “Hopefully he’ll see the merit of talking to me,” Johnson said.
Several prominent Republicans are also seeking the appointment, including Trump’s former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, Rep. Doug Collins and former Reps. Paul Broun and Jack Kingston.
“I hope to get appointed, but also got to be looking towards the win in November 2020,” Johnson said, referring to the special election next year. He left open the possibility that he would still run for the seat even if he didn’t get Kemp’s appointment but said it would depend on who was appointed.
Johnson acknowledged his student loan relief , which would require congressional action, goes beyond the Democratic presidential candidates’ proposals.
“I do respect Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders for bringing the nature of the discussion forward,” Johnson said.
But they “haven’t thought through secondary and tertiary implications,” he said, calling the Democratic plans an “intended government takeover of post-high school education.”
Johnson said his plan — which would completely eliminate student loan debt for 37 million Americans — would be paid for with a new 1 percent tax on revenue generated “by all employers including corporations and nonprofit organizations.”
Johnson insisted he could get Republicans, who generally oppose new taxes, behind his ideas. He noted that GOP lawmakers have long been critical of the federal student loan program.
“Instead of continuing to run a misguided loan program, we actually need to deal with it in a different fashion,” he said.
Republicans “understand the concept of investment, and particularly an investment in human capital,” Johnson said. “That’s really the way it’s got to be understood and embraced.”
Johnson pointed to a 2018 study by the Levy Economics Institute on the macroeconomic benefits of student loan cancellation, calling it a “very important piece of work.” Johnson said he also drew inspiration for the $50,000 voucher for higher education from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s 2016 student loan financing plan.
DeVos appointed Johnson in 2017 as the top Education Department official overseeing all federal financial aid. Johnson stepped down from that post about six months later to lead a “strategy and innovation” office at the department. He has helped spearhead the Trump administration’s efforts to overhaul how the department collects federal student loans.
As head of the Office of Federal Student Aid, Johnson oversaw the companies that are hired to collect federal student loans as well as the public service loan forgiveness program, which has been plagued by a high denial rate. Democrats have sharply criticized the department’s management of the program and have said the Trump administration isn’t doing enough to police the loan companies.
Johnson said he had been considering the Senate campaign “for a few months” and had been strategizing “with a couple of friends in the evenings and weekends” while working at the Education Department.
Johnson said he told DeVos about his intention to pursue the open Senate seat several days ago, but said he didn’t tell her he planned to endorse sweeping student loan forgiveness or make it a centerpiece of his campaign.
Many Republicans, including DeVos, have been sharply critical of proposals to cancel large amounts of student loan debt. DeVos blasted Democrats’ plans as “crazy” as recently as last week during an interview on Fox News.
Asked whether he was a Trump supporter, Johnson said: “I’m highly supportive of the Republican focus under the Republican administration,” adding that “the Trump administration, obviously led by President Trump himself, is doing some amazingly good work.”
Johnson praised his former boss at the Education Department, too. “Secretary DeVos is truly amazing, and she is absolutely focused on what’s right for students and what’s right for taxpayers,” he said. “It’s just amazing to me to see the backlash that she gets just when her name is invoked.”
Angela Morabito, a department spokesperson, declined to comment on Johnson’s bid for Senate.
Mark Brown, who is now the agency’s top student loan official, said in an email to staff — after The Wall Street Journal first reported the news on Thursday morning — that it was Johnson who “made this personal decision as he pursues the next chapter in his very successful public and private ventures.”
Brown said the department was “forever grateful” for Johnson’s “vision” in its efforts to remake how the agency collects student loans and provides services to borrowers. “Without question, his vision and tenacity, led us through the sweeping changes required to bring Federal Student Aid into the 21st century,” Brown wrote.
Johnson’s announcement already won some praise from the left, including from Julie Margetta Morgan, a former Warren education policy adviser, who is now a fellow at the progressive Roosevelt Institute.
“Wayne Johnson got an inside look at how student loans are hurting borrowers, and he could not deny the evidence: the student loan program is a massive failed experiment that is hurting borrowers and our economy,” she said in a statement. “I’m hopeful that other leaders will take a closer look too.”