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The Caucus: Some Democrats Make Student Loans a Campaign Issue

With federal college loan rates set to double in less than two weeks unless Congress takes action, some Democrats are using the time until then to draw political capital from the hot-button issue.

The government-funded Stafford loans that are in limbo currently have an interest rate of 3.4 percent; the rate is set to go to 6.8 percent on July 1. Although many Democrats and Republicans agree that the rate should remain where it is, the parties haven’t been able to reach consensus about how to offset the cost.

Republicans have proposed taking money from the health care law and passed a bill in the House to that effect, in spite of warnings by President Obama that he would veto it. Democrats have proposed eliminating a loophole in Social Security and Medicare taxes for some high earners. Each side has accused the other of obstruction.

With progress stalled on Capitol Hill, some Democratic candidates have, in the same vein as Mr. Obama, taken the fight to the campaign trail to raise money and curry favor with voters.

Representative Tammy Baldwin, of Wisconsin, spoke about the issue at a stop in Madison, which is home to the University of Wisconsin’s flagship campus. Representative John F. Tierney of Massachusetts, who sponsored a version of the college-loan legislation in the House, e-mailed a video to constituents. And Paul Hirschbiel, a Democrat who is challenging Representative Scott Rigell in Virginia, appealed to supporters to “tell Congress to stop playing games with our children’s future” by donating to his campaign.

Republicans, meanwhile, have chided Democrats, saying that they defend the health care law at any cost.

Andrea Bozek, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said the student-loan debate was an example of how policies backed by Democrats, like the health care overhaul, ultimately “have left college students with fewer job opportunities and more student loan debt.”

The underlying issue is not trivial: According to the most recent numbers released by the Department of Education, 46 percent of undergraduate students in the 2007-8 school year had at some point turned to the government for a college loan. More students are taking out loans, too: In 1989-90, just 27 percent of undergraduates borrowed money for school from the government.

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