Obama And Romney Agree On Student Loans. But Where’s Congress?

Here's a lede I don't get to write every day: President Obama and Mitt Romney actually agree on something. Something fairly big. And yet, it still may not happen.

In 2007, Congress passed the College Cost Reduction and Access Act, which lowered the interest rate on federal student loans from 6.8 percent to 3.4 percent. But the law was temporary: It expires this July. Obama wants to extend it. The difference for a student using the loans is about $1,000. On Monday, Romney said he would like to extend it, too. The question is, will Congress cooperate?

I asked Boehner spokesman Michael Steel whether House Republicans thought they could get this done. “The rising cost of tuition is a serious problem for students and their families, so it’s unfortunate that Washington Democrats put in place a law that would double student loan rates," he e-mailed back. "That’s why Republicans and Democrats on both sides of Capitol Hill will be working on this issue in the coming months.”
I'll take that as a "maybe" on the question I asked, and a "definitely not" on the question I didn't ask ("Do Republicans think House Democrats did a good job in 2007?").

The issues, as with most anything in Washington, is offsets. Extending the program for one year would cost $6 billion. Greg Sargent notes that you could cover the whole thing by passing the Buffett Rule, but I think it's fair to say House Republicans wouldn't find that a satisfying answer. The question is whether they've got any ideas the Democrats can accept. Remember that this is one of those situations in which a simple failure to agree creates a legislative outcome: The law expires and federal student loan rates double overnight.

And this would be a very strange time to cut back on efforts to make college affordable. Over the ;ast few years, states have jacked up tuition in order to make it through the recession. That's made it tougher for students to afford college even as it's becoming more important for them to go there. "In the last 30 years, the typical college tuition has tripled," writes Derek Thompson. "But over the exact same period, the earnings gap between college-educated adults and high school graduates has also tripled. In 1979, the wage difference was 75%. In 2003, it was 230%."

We've got a lot of questionable priorities in this country. But helping kids afford higher education really isn't one of them. That's why this is, as far as I can tell, the first legislative issue of the campaign in which Obama and Romney have actually agreed. The question is whether that'll be enough.


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