On Friday, Congress overwhelmingly passed a transportation/flood insurance/student loan conference bill, ends three years of ad-hoc action by Congress to keep transportation funding from ending. While the bill was not as flawed as it could have been, and some concerns expressed by conservatives – including myself – about the political process related to the bill never came to pass, it is still a major disappointment that it got through so easily.
The issues with legislation are not just policy-driven; there were at least two procedural issues. Some good reforms were included, but four major sticking points stand out:
- The conference report combined three unrelated bills into one, a too-common practice on Capitol Hill to offset costs (remember passage of the PPACA and the student loan industry takeover, in which the student loan takeover was about $19 billion of the total “savings” the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) said the health care law would have over ten years?) and garner votes by putting “must-pass” legislation around items of lower priority. I am not certain why the bills were stacked together, but I am certain most people would prefer separate legislation be debated and passed (or rejected) on their own merit.
- Student loans should not be subsidized by taxpayers. This was done as a so-called temporary measure in 2007, but like many other “temporary” measures it has now been extended. Unfortunately, the extension was far more about political capital and elections than it was about actually making college more affordable and bettering the American university system.
- Procedurally, the legislation was passed with a waiver so Members didn’t have to stay in Washington until Saturday. While I’m usually all in favor of Congress leaving town, it’s yet another small indication of where priorities are for many Members – on their own agendas, not on the promises of transparency or putting their constituents first.
- As Heritage notes, it simply spends too much.
This is not to say the bill has no good aspects. Heritage also points out that it eliminated earmarks, consolidates and streamlines programs, and gives states more flexibility. Procedurally speaking, I think it’s important that the bill went through the normal procedure of passing each chamber of Congress and going through the conference process. Most important, and most interesting, however, is that the bill doesn’t include rail funding. When I spoke to an aide for Senator Rockefeller (D-WV) about that on Friday morning, he said the Senator – a conferee for the final bill – supported keeping Amtrak and other rail funding, but that the House eliminated it.
By not including rail funding, the legislation prevents something like $37 billion in spending. While I have no doubt it will be brought forward in separate legislation, I think considering Amtrak subsidies and overall rail spending on their own instead of in a combined bill gives conservatives a much better chance of slimming down spending in that area of the budget.
Unfortunately, these reforms don’t outweigh the negatives. This was made clear when two stalwart conservative organizations, the Club for Growth and Heritage Action, said they would “score” Members badly if they voted for it. It appears that this threat was not enough to convince even one-quarter of House Republicans to stand against it. One Republican, Glenn Thompson of Pennsylvania, voted for the legislation and briefly spoke afterward. An aide for the Congressman provided me this link to his post-vote comments, which included Thompson praising the student loan aspect of the bill for keeping rates low in a bad economy but also pressing his colleagues to lower the overall cost of education.
I e-mailed the aide the following three questions about the loan rates and overall education reform, but the Congressman was unable to respond before my deadline due to his travel situation:
"Given the Congressman's long-term efforts to lower the cost of education, and his awareness that federal mandates in higher education have increased costs, does he believe further subsidizing loans increases long-term costs for college attendance?"
"Related, would he support letting these rates go up if the economy was better?"
"Lastly, what does he think is the best way to extend the rates in a deficit-neutral fashion?"
His aide did send me the following statement: “Rep. Thompson believes it is absolutely essential that Congress put forward a long-term solution for college affordability, which meets the needs of student borrowers and the taxpayer alike.”
Another Member who strongly supported the extension in post-vote floor remarks was Rep. Joe Courtney (D-CT). A proponent of lower interest rates for students, Courtney introduced H.R. 3826 in January 2012 to permanently cap student interest rates at 3.4%. When I contacted his office for comment, an aide for the Congressman e-mailed me a press release in which the Courtney praised his colleagues for passing the rate extension, but also said he wanted a permanent solution. When I asked the aide about the cost of the bill, he e-mailed that the Congressman’s bill “doesn’t have a payfor right now, but that is the goal. As saw in the debate over a one-year fix, finding common ground on payfors takes time, which is why we didn’t give it one yet. The bill hasn’t been scored yet.”
All in all, it does seem that this bill epitomizes compromise in D.C. – nobody on or off the Hill is happy with the conference report as a whole, whether for cost or coverage reasons, and many are unhappy with its parts. In the transportation portion, for example, Republicans took out a Keystone provision, and Democrats eliminated certain environmental regulations, and as seen above two Members of different parties who supported the education provisions did so for somewhat different reasons and certainly with different long-term goals for lowering the cost of higher education.
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