Let's listen to the sound of the House of Representatives debating student loan reform on Wednesday:
"I don't want a single-payer health care system, and I don't want a single-payer student loan system!"
"We're not talking about health care today, but perhaps we should be!"
"The big gulp of the public option swallowing the private option!"
I think we have a pattern here. Last year, it seemed as though the whole world was a derivative. This year, no matter what the subject, there's a death panel lurking behind every bush.
The student loan bill actually has very little in common with the great hairball that is known as health care reform. For one thing, so far, it seems to be moving through Congress rather nicely.
For another, it's pretty easy to explain. It would simplify the federally guaranteed loan system, save an estimated $87 billion over 10 years and use that money to increase aid to low-income students, improve community colleges and raise standards for early childhood education.
Let us stop here and recall how the current system loan system works:
1) Federal government provides private banks with capital.
2) Federal government pays private banks a subsidy to lend that capital to students.
3) Federal government guarantees said loans so the banks don't have any risk.
And now, the proposed reform:
1) The federal government makes the loans.
Wow. You really do wonder why nobody came up with this idea before.
"We thought about this for a long time," said George Miller, the chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor. "Before, we never had the horses to do it."
It is a tad depressing to imagine all those committees of yore, sitting there and saying: "Gee, it sure would be nice to improve Pell grants and community colleges. But everybody says we need that money to give to the banks."
The House Republicans have a different proposal. Which, as Rep. John Kline of Minnesota explained, is to leave everything the way it is and "convene a nonpartisan commission."
Perhaps there will come a time when the words "convene a nonpartisan commission" do not cause people to topple over in depression and despair. But it may take a while.
Just hours before, Sen. Max Baucus had unveiled the long-awaited product of his blue-ribbon, bipartisan committee on health care reform. You will remember that the whole legislative world came to a screeching halt so Baucus' group could do its work. All summer long, the members floated above tawdry political concerns and labored on a meeting of the minds. Now the final product has landed, its wishy-washiness exceeded only by its total lack of bipartisan backers.
"No Republican has offered his or her support at this moment," said Baucus.
But never mind. Just when you begin to think that these people are never going to be able to do anything, ever, here comes student loan reform, scampering down the aisle, wagging its hopeful tail.
The bill actually got a couple of Republican votes in Miller's committee, which is two more than Baucus has gotten on anything so far. When it gets to the Senate, the Democrats plan to do one of those reconciliation maneuvers that allow them to pass a bill with a mere majority of votes, radical as that might seem.
If it all works out, Congress will have come a way toward fixing this problem, at least when it comes to federally financed student loans. There's already a new law that forgives part or all of the debt for graduates who go into careers in public service. Terms will be easier for low-income debtors.
But there's a lot longer way to go. The central problem with financing higher education is that tuition keeps running ahead of the rate of inflation like Secretariat closing in the Belmont. The assumption that kids can just pay the bill with borrowed money has to be one of the reasons schools aren't feeling more pressure to control costs.
"That's a very serious subject of conversation on my committee. We have not come up with a good answer. We've come up with a lot of gibberish," said Miller, with winning candor.
Two-thirds of college students now borrow to pay for college. They have a sympathetic ear in the White House. Back during the presidential campaign, there was nothing Barack and Michelle Obama talked about with more passion than the burden of student loans. Really, there's nothing like the memory of $80,000 in debt to put fervor in your delivery.
There was a time when the Obamas doubted they'd ever get out of hock. Then Barack became a world-famous political figure, sales of his memoir skyrocketed and the family was able to pay off the student loans.
Unfortunately, this is not a financial plan that many other people can replicate.
©New York Times News Service