John Boehner's student loan legacy

When I first started researching the student loan issue over a decade ago, it quickly became obvious that there was one congressman the student lending industry loved more than anyone else:  John BoehnerJohn BoehnerDem drops out of race for Boehner's old seat Conservative allies on opposite sides in GOP primary fight Clinton maps out first 100 days MORE.

Sallie Mae (the nation's largest student loan company), through its PAC, gave Rep. BoehnerJohn BoehnerDem drops out of race for Boehner's old seat Conservative allies on opposite sides in GOP primary fight Clinton maps out first 100 days MORE (R-Ohio) more money than anyone else.  Boehner enjoyed trips to Boca Raton and other vacation spots aboard Sallie Mae's private jet.  At a meeting of the Consumer Banker's Association, Boehner told the student loan industry crowd, "Know that I hold you in my trusted hands.  I've got enough rabbits up my sleeve...".  Boehner even got one of his family members a job at a student loan collection company over a game of golf!

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Looking at legislation passed while Boehner was chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, it becomes clear why the student loan companies were so generous to him.  He was instrumental in killing the ability of borrowers to refinance their loans with competitors of Sallie Mae at lower interest rates.  He fought hard to preserve hugely generous subsidies to lenders who assumed zero risk for the loans they made to begin with.

Most significantly, however, Boehner was instrumental in removing bankruptcy protections from private student loans in 2005.  This shocking move was couched in promises from the banks that removing bankruptcy protections would allow them to lend to more needy students and at better rates.  After Boehner and friends successfully pushed this through Congress, the banks not only broke these promises, they actually began demanding cosigners (with assets to come after) for over 90 percent of the private loans they made.  This crushed a lot of people financially, and tore apart untold thousands (probably hundreds of thousands) of families.

Whatever Boehner's motivations for destroying long-standing, fundamental, free-market protections for student loans, the facts are very clear: When Boehner took leadership of the House education committee, the nation owed about $100 billion in student loans.  When he passed the baton in 2006, the amount had risen to over $400 billion.  Boehner will be leaving office with the nation owing close to $1.5 trillion in student loan debt. Those numbers speak for themselves.

Wittingly or unwittingly, Boehner leaves behind a Department of Education that is just about the worst, big-government monstrosity that one can think of.  It is immune to the bankruptcy protections that every other lender, whether public or private, must contend with.  There are no statutes of limitations on its entire portfolio.  It has a completely captive market of more than 44 million citizens, more than half of whom are currently unable to pay on their debt.  It actually makes a healthy profit on defaulted loans.  This should make all economists, all conservatives, and all citizens very, very worried.

Boehner says he is not concerned with his legacy, but millions of citizens of all stripes have suffered by his handiwork, and millions more are queued up for decades of financial misery at the hands of both government and banks if, at a minimum, the standard bankruptcy that should never have been removed from any lending instrument are not returned to student loans. 

Boehner says he's not worried about his legacy.  But on this issue, he should be.

Collinge is founder of StudentLoanJustice.Org and author of The Student Loan Scam (Beacon Press).

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