The sorry Stafford panderfest
A shameless cave-in by House Republicans

Article Highlights

  • The Stafford program is a middle-class entitlement. Students get an even bigger subsidy on already-subsidized loans.

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  • How is #Washington dealing with asking new college borrowers to forgo their extra subsidy of 30 to 80 cents a day?

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  • This will be only the first of many times that House Republicans abandon principle to accommodate the #Romney campaign

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Inspired by President Obama’s cheap election-year politicking, Congress has launched into a frenzied, bipartisan panderfest over the Stafford loan program. Late last week, an emotional House speaker John Boehner led House Republicans to vote for an Obama-proposed giveaway he’d denounced just a few days previously.

For those who don’t eagerly track the ins and outs of federally subsidized student loans, here’s the deal: Five years ago, in a piece of cheap political theater, Democrats in Congress wrote an additional sweetener for federally subsidized Stafford loans into the College Cost Reduction and Access Act. Beyond offering college loans at a guaranteed rate of 6.8 percent, Congress temporarily dropped the undergraduate rate as low as 3.4 percent. The fixed rate was demanded by student-loan advocates who disliked the fact that interest rates fluctuate and wanted the feds to offer certainty (and understood that the rates would have to be high enough that they wouldn’t drain the U.S. Treasury). The Bush administration, which never worried about spending a couple billion more, cheerfully went along for the ride.

Now, the temporary 3.4 percent is set to naturally expire, with undergraduate Stafford loans reverting to the standard 6.8 percent rate. The impact? Not so much. U.S. PIRG, the big “student advocacy” lobbying outfit, calculates that the change would cost the average new borrower $2,800 over a ten-year repayment term. That’s about $25 a month. Former CBO director Douglas Holtz-Eakin has pegged the impact at $7 a month.

Meanwhile, the projected hit to the federal debt is projected at $30 billion over five years.

The Stafford program is a middle-class entitlement. We’re not talking about Pell grants for poor students. We’re talking about whether students can get an even bigger subsidy on already-subsidized loans. And, while everyone on Capitol Hill is busy offering an offset to “pay” for the extension, it’s useful to remember that we’re borrowing a trillion bucks this year. That means that none of this is paid for. All of those potential cuts are already needed just to start trimming the existing debt.

How is Washington dealing with asking new college borrowers to forgo their extra subsidy of 30 to 80 cents a day? Not impressively. The same President Obama who once pledged that we were done “kicking the can” on tough decisions is pandering for the youth vote (on the Jimmy Fallon show, no less) by insisting it’s a national imperative to extend the largesse. In a discouraging development, the same Mitt Romney who insists we have to slash spending and put the brakes on Obama’s “government-centered society” quickly caved and joined Obama’s call to extend the break.

In fact, the president has blatantly misrepresented who will benefit and how much the reset matters. He’s been joined by members of Congress who know better (or damn well should). Obama has suggested there will be big savings for recent grads struggling in today’s job market, and that his pandering is actually a response to a temporary, immediate crisis. In truth, the extended subsidy applies only to loans initiated in 2012–13 — in other words, for students who won’t be graduating for years and years.

Congress, which is good at agreeing on ways to give away freebies to the American public, is now fully on board. Boehner’s office has declared that “Republicans and Democrats on both sides of the aisle and both sides of the Capitol have long agreed this is a problem that must be addressed.” Boehner has said, “What Washington shouldn’t be doing is exploiting the challenges that young Americans face for political gain.”

On Capitol Hill, Republicans and Democrats all claim to realize that the feds can’t keep spending a trillion a year more than we collect, but are in a frenzied competition to score points off this bit of shameless pandering.

Boehner’s release, which followed Romney’s decision to match Obama pander for pander, was funny because it required an embarrassing pivot by the House Republicans. Just two days earlier, the speaker’s office had admirably argued, “President Obama has said many times, ‘We can’t just keep subsidizing skyrocketing tuition; we’ll run out of money.’ Unfortunately, that’s all the president’s plan does.”

Doubtless, this will be only the first of many times that House Republicans abandon principle to accommodate the Romney campaign. Just imagine if this weren’t the most conservative House in memory.

 Frederick M. Hess is director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute,

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