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Opinion Letters Student loan program a boon for federal staffers

On June 19, 2013, USA-Today revealed to the nation a program utilized by federal agencies and the U.S. House and Senate whereby student loans are paid, with public funds, for federal employees and congressional staff.

Since that time both the House and Senate have passed bills (both by wide margins) and sent them to the president for signing. It is noteworthy that these bills lower the interest rate on student loans to the pre-July rate of 3.4 percent for the coming school year but will increase beginning with the 2014-15 school year.

The interest rate will be linked to financial markets next year and will not be higher than 8.25 percent for undergraduates, 9.5 percent for graduate students and for parents who take out loans for their children, the rate will top out at 10.5 percent.

Meanwhile, these same students, and parents, who work and pay taxes will not only have to pay off their own loans with high interest rates but will also be burdened with paying off the loans of thousands of federal employees and staff.

This bipartisan agreement is estimated to reduce the deficit by $715 million over 10 years. I regard this as adding insult to injury, a brazen slap in the face of the one generation (our children) who had nothing to do with the deficits or the $17 trillion debt.

The "Student Loan Repayment Program" was established in 1990 (George H.W. Bush’s presidency) but was not implemented until 2000 when first employed by federal agencies. The Senate applied it in 2002, the House in 2003 and it has been a carefully guarded secret ever since, until June 19 anyway. I have yet to meet a single solitary soul who knew this surreptitious program existed.

Since July 1, I have called the Washington offices of all 100 U.S. Senators and that has been an education. Five of the Senators employ a messaging system that disallowed my speaking with a live human, instead referring me to a web site or voice mail.

Of the remaining 95 Senatorial staff with whom I spoke I had two questions. I asked each how their senator stood on the issue of interest rates on student loans. For the majority who offered a reasonable answer, all favored lowering the interest rate.

My second question was far more provocative and elicited equally stimulating answers. The question was: There is a program for federal agencies, including the House and Senate, which pays student loans for employees and staff; does your senator use these funds to pay off loans for his/her staff?

The silence, at this point, was deafening. Only 24 staff members would answer that question. Eighteen said "Yes," the senator does use the program (nine Democrats - nine Republicans) and six stated, "No," the senator does not use the program (three and three).

In response to the second question, several staff promptly asked for my zip code, and discovering I reside in North Carolina, said; "You need to direct your questions to a representative from you state," or, "I'm sure your senators would be glad to hear from you on that." Actually that turned out not to be true, neither of my senator's staff would talk to me.

I will say that only one staff person got a bit irritable with me though several who wouldn't say yea or nay were unmistakably touchy about the subject. That's understandable, it's not easy for a genuinely good person to defend a truly bad scheme.

Some staff were forthright and tried to be helpful. Mark Warner's (D-VA) was especially so. The young lady in Senator Session's (R-AL) office was the only one to flip the coin on me by saying; "Senator Sessions would like to know how you stand on the issue, sir." That was an exemplary response.

One staff person told me it was private information and I didn't have a right to know. I told him that if staff in his office paid their own loans, that's true. If however, staff loans were paid with public funds, I absolutely do have a right to know.

My view on the overall question of interest rates for student loans coincides with that of Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), that we should allow students the same low 0.75 percent interest rate that big banks enjoy.

In so far as the program presently employed by federal agencies, the House and Senate, I strongly believe and maintain it is a shameless misuse of public funds, is blatantly and deeply offensive to American citizens and taxpayers and, in times of a deteriorating economy and a massive (and growing) national debt, it is inconceivable that our "representatives" would continue funding such a gross injustice.

David L. Snell — Dillsboro, N.C.





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