5 Ways Speaker Ryan Might Change (Law School) Student Loans

Yes, not the Trump era—the Ryan era. Partly we should be clear about who’s really setting any agendas here, but it’s also to recognize that extraconstitutional President D. Trump might not finish his term. The way things have been going since the election, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s gone by the time you’re reading this.

Moreover, thus far Trump’s sole contribution to student-loan reform has been yet another income-sensitive repayment plan, which was one of the few ideas that he provided any details for during the campaign. As I understand it, his proposal limits the repayment period to 15 years rather than 20, which saves on the net amount debtors pay while increasing their monthly payments. I don’t know if that would require any action by Congress, so I’m sure Betsy DeVos is right on it.

More interesting is why Trump even looks like he cares about student debtors at all. According to the WSJ, for example, they’re the biggest moochers ever, requiring a projected bailout of $100 billion over some number of years. (Never mind that a week later the Defense Department admitted that it wastes $125 billion every five years. Debtors are moochers; the Pentagon, no.) Republicans hate moochers, Trump is a Republican, debtors are moochers; therefore Trump hates debtors. Q.E.D. Maybe Trump sympathizes (if that’s possible) with student debtors because of his frequent bankruptcy filings and probable debts to Vladimir Putin’s buddies. Hey, the syllogism still works if Trump or Republicans are moochers or debtors themselves.

Anyhow, I don’t see student debt on Trump’s agenda such as it is. As I understand it, presidents have a brief window early in their first terms to push their priorities through Congress before their popularity plummets. Trump was never popular, and his popularity is already plummeting, so if student loans were a low priority to begin with, they’ll fall off his list now. Consequently, I think he’ll sign any legislation so long as he can spin it to sound like a victory. This leaves the legislature as the only source of policy. Senate Majority Leader McConnell is too busy looking like a tortoise, so this all falls to the House, which means Ryan.

And Speaker Ryan likes policy. He’s not particularly good at it, but he sounds like he is, so there’s that. Here is where I Ryan might take Congress on student loans:

  1. Nowhere. Ryan and friends are already excited about (a) avoiding their constituents who want to keep their Obamacare, (b) avoiding their constituents who want them to investigate the president’s Russia ties, (c) passing tax cuts for people who don’t need them, (d) passing a budget that slashes all discretionary programs (i.e. “Mr. Rogers’ Privatized Neighborhood“), (e) privatizing Medicare/Medicaid/Social Security/national parks, and (f) dealing with even more blowback from all of the above. If Trump’s conflicts blossom into a constitutional crisis, then we’ll have more entertaining things to think about than student loans.
  2. Adopting fair-value accounting for government credit programs. This is one of Ryan’s few policy positions I agree with, and the Congressional Budget Office does too. (More info here.) There’s long been plenty of liberal opposition to it, but the Republicans might be able to flip the Democratic senators necessary to beat a filibuster. Changing the Federal Credit Reform Act is also sufficiently technical that it will not lead to grassroots mobilization of angry liberals who believe fair-value accounting threatens diversity.
  3. Passing the ExCEL Loan Act. I have no idea where it originally came from, but sometimes even Democrats offer this bill. Its point is that there are too many types of federal loans and too many repayment plans. The ExCEL Loan Act consolidates them, but it also eliminates loan forgiveness features that come with income-sensitive repayment plans.
  4. Capping or eliminating Grad PLUS loans. Supposedly, Ryan doesn’t like the program, and other representatives have grumbled about it, so law schools’ crutch might finally die. The only two reasons to think this might not come about are (a) the diversity crowd, and (b) the for-profit law schools that provide a very important public service—can Ryan resist the siren call of corporate welfare?
  5. Reforming or Eliminating the Department of Education. Maybe something like this could happen if the Democrats do badly in the 2018 midterms—many Senate seats are up—but it depends on how the next two years unfold. Similarly, it’s possible that Republicans will resurrect the guaranteed loan program. Ultimately, there’s a tension between honoring the Bennett hypothesis and giving government revenue to banks.

In the past I’ve said that (4) (Grad PLUS loans) is a likely option, but now I’m not so sure. Nobody expected the election to turn out as it did, but I thought unified Republican governance would be more focused. Yet one month in we have a party that’s stumped on repealing the health care law it’s hated for years and is nowhere near cutting taxes. It’s not implausible, then, that higher education reform is either lower on the agenda or won’t be as decisive as we’d hope.

Speaking of unified governance, a few weeks ago the ABA House of Delegates rejected the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar’s proposed bar-passage standard for law schools. As with all rulemaking or legislation the dispute isn’t fully resolved, but it’s noteworthy that the section committees that passed the standard are supposed to be the ones captured by student-loan dependent law schools and self-important law professors, while the House of Delegates is independent. Instead, the house is preaching diversity while the section passed a rule mandating accountability. Maybe the house is bad-copping the good-cop section, or the ABA’s politics have gone topsy-turvy as our Putin-loving government’s has.

In context, the bar-passage standard appeared to be the only viable idea out of the ABA that would shut down the most superfluous law schools. Given that the number of applicants is flat, and assuming policy is still gridlocked, it seems we’re in for more of the same for the next few years.

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