Why Won't the GOP Let the Senate Vote on Student Loans?
Tuesday morning Senate Republicans did something extra special. They blocked a vote on a Democratic bill to keep the interest on some student loans from doubling. This means the interest rate, which is now a barely tolerable 3.4 percent, will jump to 6.8 percent in two months unless something drastic happens. Like Mitt Romney realizing that most American families don’t have a spare $20,000 around to loan their kids.
As the mother of two children in college, and struggling to figure out the finances of keeping them there on an hourly basis, let me be the first to say how thrilled I am at the GOP’s determination to solve this national crisis. Especially at a time when young people with college degrees are suffering staggeringly high rates of unemployment. I am sure my daughter, who is a sophomore at the University of Oregon, and already saddled with $10,000 in student loans, will be equally elated when I text her after I’m done with this post. Guess what, honey? You’re going to be in even greater debt than we thought!
Thank God she’s not in graduate school, is all I can say, where the interest rate for Stafford loans is even higher. I’m sure I’ll sleep much better tonight, along with millions of other middle-class parents of college students.
But seriously, I'm so fed up with the political posturing on this issue. How long have we been having this debate over the soaring costs of college tuition now? Two years? Five? Eight? I know it's at least been as long as I've been filling out those migraine-inducing FAFSA forms. (And if you don't know what those are, you are very lucky.)
Both sides claim they want to make college more affordable, less of a financial albatross for families. After today's non-vote, both sides claimed they wanted nothing more than to extend the low interest rate. But the other side had intolerably bad ideas. The other side wouldn't budge. Consensus was impossible. It goes without saying that it's particularly impossible during an election year. But so what? That's simply not good enough. Stop acting like self-centered four-year-olds, Congress. It's really getting old.
This was the GOP's 21st successful filibuster this Congress. As for why Senate Republicans couldn’t in all good conscience even discuss the offending bill, it came down to protecting those strangely elusive job creators. Seriously. The Democrats wanted to pay for extending the 2007 interest rate by changing tax law so that rich Americans would have to pay Social Security and Medicare taxes. And that, as we all know, would have plunged the economy into a tailspin.
As Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee told the New York Times: “They want to raise taxes on people who are creating jobs when we are still recovering from the greatest recession since the Great Depression.”
Lamar proposed his own shamelessly political idea of how to pay for the bill. Why not take a shot at Obamacare and cut funds for preventive care? Surely, with an epidemic of obesity and soaring medical costs for heart disease and diabetes, not to mention high infant mortality rates, we could eliminate that? While we’re at it, let’s also cut the provision that keeps children on their parents’ health insurance up to age 26. I’m sure my 22-year-old son, who works 20 hours a week, goes to college, has an unpaid internship, and still lives at home would be down with that. I mean, the kid hardly does anything. Why should he get a free ride on my health insurance?
In truth, the Senate’s behavior was entirely predictable, and all about politics. Because the bill was something Obama pressed hard for, the Republicans weren’t about to let him have a victory. Even if meant hurting students and their families. Because it’s all about thwarting Obama and making him look bad.
Or making stuff up. In Ohio today, for instance, Mitt Romney made the astonishing claim that Obama intends to capture the student vote by promising "a lot of free stuff." Yes, free college loans for every home in America!
But Obama has to be more forceful, too. He can't just show up at college campuses, give an awesome speech about his support for lowering student loans, and then hop on Air Force One back to Washington. Maybe he could bring some of those hard-up, financially strapped students with him so they could tell Congress what paying for college is really like? He could throw in some college presidents, parents from different income levels and racial backgrounds, financial aid experts, and a few creative types like the brilliant speakers at TED. They could solve this problem with bright, flexible people who aren't obsessing over their next fundraiser.
Because right now Congress doesn't seem to get it. Or want to. Which makes me wonder, Do any of these politicians have kids in college? Kids who are having to cobble together a mind-boggling array of loans, scholarships, and pin money to afford college? Do they know that student loan debt is now at a record high of $121 billion? Even higher for the first time than credit card debt? Or are they all able to just tap into their trust funds?
Speaking of which, I sure wish I had one. We just paid my daughter’s tuition, and now we’re juggling to pay the mortgage. How did college get so expensive? When I went to the University of California at Berkeley, I think my tuition was $240 a quarter. Now that would barely cover a sociology textbook.
You won’t even believe what my daughter’s out-of-state tuition is. Just guess. $24,000? $30,000? Try nearly $40,000. And that doesn’t include incidentals like housing, food, laundry soap, and her cell phone. I have no idea how we’re paying for this, but it’s a combination of loans, savings, help from my mother-in-law and occasionally an unexpected check from God. But God are we lucky. I tell myself this every day: The paint on our house may be peeling and a terrible eyesore, and our refrigerator may be 20 years old, but here's the incredible thing: I can afford to send my daughter to college. Millions of American parents now can’t. And we're all going to pay the price for it.
In a country where college becomes less of the American dream and more the American exception.