MARTIN SCHRAM: Congress fails to act on student loans
In a bipartisan act of calculated inaction and willful indifference, the Democrats and Republicans who run Congress passively allowed a key student loan interest rate for low- and middle-income students to double.
The senators and representatives weren’t around for the fallout, of course — they’d already dashed out of town for their Fourth of July vacations. An estimated 7 million low- and middle-income students receive these so-called subsidized Stafford loans each year. They represent a quarter of all student loan recipients. Last year, the 3.4 percent interest rate on those loans was extended for one year so Congress could reach a compromise solution.
But of course, this Congress couldn’t compromise itself out of a burning building — so, on July 1, the rate soared to 6.8 percent. Now those who can least afford it must pay twice as much in interest as those who got their loans before the end of June.
Depending on how much a student borrows, the estimated cost of a four-year college education could increase by anywhere from $1,000 to the $4,500 projected by Congress’ Joint Economic Committee.
This would require low- and moderate-income students to pay 6.8 percent interest rates at a time when folks with excellent jobs and excellent credit are getting mortgages for, say, 3.9 percent and buying a new car with a zero-percent interest loan. Also at a time when tuition costs are soaring and families are scrimping so their children will be able to go to college.
As the senators and representatives skedaddled out of town without acting on the loans, President Barack Obama’s familiar voice of compassion was missing. We didn’t hear Obama demanding loudly that Congress do the decent thing by simply extending the discounted Stafford loan interest rate until a permanent deal could be done.
Perhaps his silence was due to the political laryngitis that often plagues Washington. After all, this political war isn’t your typical battle of Blues versus Reds.
Democrats are mainly battling Democrats, much to the bemusement of Republicans. Conservative Republicans are at odds with conservative Republicans, much to the merriment of Democrats. The Republican-run House passed a proposal that would tie future subsidized Stafford loans to market-based rates. A number of Republican senators are pushing a similar proposal. And — here’s what rankles a number of progressive Democrats — Obama also offered a market-based plan in his 2014 budget. While Obama would lock in rates for the lifetime of the student loans, the GOP House plan would allow rates to climb year by year.
Now this: Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., a progressive clarion, has proposed a very different market-based plan. She wants to peg interest rates for subsidized Stafford student loans to the Federal Reserve’s discount rate — currently just 0.75 percent.
She cites a Congressional Budget Office report saying the federal government will make $51 billion from all student loans this year, not just the subsidized ones. That’s more than the annual profit of any Fortune 500 company.
This gets us to an outcome that seems both mindless and heartless. The new interest payments, forced upon already-overburdened students, would add hundreds of millions of dollars in federal revenue.
“We should not be profiting from students who are drowning in debt while we are giving great deals to big banks,” Warren and Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., wrote in a recent Boston Globe op-ed column. They are right, of course.
Meanwhile, Washington’s smart set is all a’Twitter about how Congress will eventually make a deal. And a born-again reduction in the Stafford interest rate will surely be made retroactive. So the neediest students need not worry, after all.
We haven’t had an assurance so comforting since the summer 2011, when Congress winked as it enacted an automatic budget “sequester” provision. Just to force responsible spending cuts, of course. The capital cognoscenti assured us back then that Congress would never — no, never — allow the dreaded sequestration to happen.
Today, the sequester sometimes seems to be all that is working in Washington.
• CORRECTION: In last week’s column, I erroneously identified Republican political strategist Karl Rove as the founder of Citizens United, the conservative political action committee that won a landmark Supreme Court decision. Rove is not connected with Citizens United. Instead, he founded American Crossroads, another organization that makes independent political expenditures and has benefited from the court decision. The court issued its ruling in 2010, not in 2008.