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In keeping student loan rates low, Congress sends hidden message

The House and Senate passed measures to address student loan rates, transportation funding, and flood insurance, showing that when Congress wants to get things done, it can. 

By Staff writer / June 29, 2012

In this Aug. 2011 photo students attend graduation ceremonies at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Butch Dill/AP

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Washington

Congress scored a trio of legislative accomplishments Friday afternoon, as both houses approved measures authorizing transportation funding for the next two years, kept interest rates low on federal student loans for another year, and reauthorized a flood-insurance program for five years.

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In the House, the combined measures passed 373 to 52. Only Republicans, spurred on by fiscally conservative activist groups, voted "no." In the Senate, the measure passed 74 to 19, again with only Republicans in opposition.

The day’s action showcased the legislators' campaign-season needs: to show that they can get something done, even as both sides look to smear their political opponents whenever possible.

Take student loans, with a measly (for Congress) $6 billion price tag. The aim was to prevent interest rates on federally subsidized student loans from jumping from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent come July. Both sides had agreed that they wanted to do that from the moment the issue was broached in May.

Then Democrats (led by President Obama) and Republicans spent the intervening six weeks sniping at one another for not being serious about helping America’s college students. Each side offered up a nonstarter proposal to pay for the measure – Republicans to eliminate a preventive health-care fund from Mr. Obama’s health-care reform law, and Democrats to close a tax loophole allowing some wealthy individuals to avoid payroll taxes.

Eventually, Congress came up with some $20 billion to pave the way for the student loan/transportation/flood insurance package to proceed. For instance, it changed how companies calculate their pension obligations and increased fees the federal government collects at the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.

Then there is flood insurance, of which the federal government is the only provider. Advocates argued that allowing the program to lapse for the sixth time since 2008 would put pressure on some housing markets. Republicans and Democrats hashed out a compromise that attempts to bring the private sector into the flood-insurance market in the long term. But a vote foundered on an unrelated matter: Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky wanted a flood-insurance vote to include a vote on an amendment regarding a so-called “personhood” measure, defining life as beginning at conception.

Finally, the $109 billion transportation bill was yet another reminder of political pressures on policymaking. Sens. Barbara Boxer (D) of California and Jim Inhofe (R) of Oklahoma crafted a bipartisan transportation bill that won approval of nearly three-quarters of the Senate back in March.

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