House OKs $12 billion student loan program cut

The U.S. House of Representatives approved a budget bill including over $12 billion in cuts to federal student loan programs by a two-vote margin Wednesday, sending the measure to President Bush.

The 216-214 vote, divided starkly down party lines was the final congressional chapter in a months-long battle of political maneuvers over the deficit reduction bill, which passed by razor-thin margins in both the House and Senate late last year. President George W. Bush has indicated that he intends to sign the bill into law.

The bill targets student aid programs for the largest portion of the proposed $39 billion in cuts over five years to programs including Medicare and Medicaid, while also collecting $10 billion in new revenue by auctioning television airwaves to wireless companies.

The bill redirects nearly $13 billion over five years in subsidy payments that students and parents make to lenders into the federal budget, raises the interest rate for parent loans from 7.9 percent to 8.5 percent and fixes the interest rate for Stafford loans at 6.8 percent. The bill also cuts $2.2 billion from funds used to administer federal student loan programs.

The bill will likely raise the cost of attending college for millions of student borrowers throughout the United States who graduate with an average of $17,000 in debt, including over 90,000 residing in Oregon.

Some higher education spending is included in the bill as well, including $3.7 billion in grants for students majoring in math, science and foreign languages.

“Students should be outraged that this legislation passed,” said Portland State student body president Erin Devaney. “It’s absolutely disgusting that the federal government invests so little into higher education.”

Reduction in student loan programs will only create further barriers for students to receive a college education, Devaney said, when a degree is increasingly critical to obtaining jobs.

13 Republicans and one Independent joined the 200 Democrats who voted against the bill. No Democrats voted in favor of the measure. Oregon Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer was unable to attend the vote because he was flying back to Oregon to attend to a medical issue involving his mother, though he opposed the bill, Blumenauer spokesperson Kathie Eastman said.

Republicans hailed the measure as necessary reform to curtail spending on “mandatory” spending programs such as Medicare that threaten to overwhelm the budget if left unchecked. “Mandatory” spending programs, including federal student loans, are funded based on need rather than at a fixed amount, meaning that spending automatically increases with the number of people who use it.

Democrats decried the measure for cutting programs in the name of deficit reduction while Republicans simultaneously attempt to pass a $70 billion tax cut bill that would lead to a net increase in the deficit.

The bill’s passage was a dispiriting end to what turned into a marathon campaign for student advocacy groups, who spent countless hours lobbying both the House and the Senate as debate on the bill dragged on into the new year.

National organizations like the United States Student Association and the State Public Interest Research Group’s Higher Education Project campaigned heavily against the bill along with state student lobbies and student governments, nicknaming the bill the “Raid on Student Aid.”

“We’re very disappointed,” said Jayme Rabenberg, a field organizer for the Oregon Student Association, a statewide student advocacy group that opposes the budget cuts. “Students in Oregon did everything they could and moved the vote as much as they could.”

Student governments at Portland State and Oregon’s six other state universities organized campaigns along with OSA that produced thousands of phone calls and letters to senators and representatives over the past several months attempting to persuade them to vote against the bill.

Both of Oregon’s senators and four of the state’s five congressman opposed the final version of the bill. Only Republican Rep. Greg Walden voted in favor. Rabenberg said that student lobbyists tried to sway Walden’s position over the last few days but his office responded with a “resounding no.”

Wednesday’s vote was not the first time that the budget bill passed by a narrow margin. The House passed a different version of the bill at a midnight session in November by just two votes, 217-215. In December, Vice President Dick Cheney had to cut a trip to the Middle East short to cast a tie-breaking vote in the Senate on the final version of the bill, which passed 51-50. A last minute maneuver by Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota removed two provisions from the bill before the Senate approved it, requiring a rare revote in the House before the bill could be sent to President Bush.

Previous versions of the bill included steeper cuts and controversial provisions such as oil drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge. As provisions in the bill were shuffled around, some Republicans in Congress also shifted their positions on the bill, casting doubt among Republican leaders as to whether they had enough votes for the bill to pass.