Money-Changers In The Senate

Moneychangers In The Senate (PDF)The student loan industry faces a serious challenge from advocates who question the reason for its existence, which is premised on massive, inefficient government subsidies.

Leading student lender Sallie Mae reported profits of $324 million last year on the strength of its student loan business, which is heavily subsidized through the Federal Family Education Loan program (FFEL). Sallie Mae originated $21 billion worth of loans backed by the program in 2009; other major lenders profiting from the program include Citigroup, Nelnet, JP Morgan, and Wells Fargo.

Meanwhile, by ending the program with the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA), the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the federal government would save $68 billion—money that would otherwise subsidize these banks’ profits. The CBO score also estimates that students would pay significantly lower interest rates on their loans.

With billions in profits on the line, banks have waged an intensive, multimillion-dollar political and lobbying campaign to maintain the status quo: subsidies for the banks, at students’ expense.

Their expensive campaign has won them some support. On March 9, six Democratic senators—Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark.; Mark Warner, D-Va.; Tom Carper, D-Del.; Ben Nelson, D-Neb.; Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Jim Webb, D-Va.—sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to make him “aware of our concern” about reform efforts and urging consideration of “potential alternative legislative proposals.”

What would prompt six senators to oppose efforts aimed at reducing lending costs by cutting out superfluous money-changers? The answer, of course, is the power of money, as deployed through a combination of campaign contributions and strategic lobbyist hires.

This report documents the extensive ties between the six senators and major players in the student loan industry. Among the findings:

  • The report estimates that the student loan industry has spent $15 million in the past year on a political campaign to rescue multibillion-dollar profits. Banks have waged an expensive and sophisticated battle to defeat SAFRA with campaign contributions, lobbying of congress and the CBO, help from major industry associations, and shadowy front groups to escape accountability.
  • At least six former staffers to the six Senators who signed the letter to Reid are currently lobbying for the student loan industry: Kelly Bingel (former chief of staff to Blanche Lincoln); Bill Leighty (former chief of staff to Mark Warner); Amy Tejral (former legislative director for Ben Nelson); Oscar Ramirez (gubernatorial campaign staffer for Mark Warner); Timothy Casey (legislative aide to Tom Carper); and Paul Brathwaite (Carper staffer).
  • Lenders have employed front groups to lobby on their behalf. The Business Roundtable, the Consumer Bankers Association, the American Bankers Association, and the Chamber of Commerce (including CEO Tom Donohue) have all lobbied around student aid reform on behalf of unidentified lenders. Major lenders associated with these groups include JP Morgan, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Sallie Mae, and Bank of America.
  • Student lenders and their lobbyists have showered the six senators with tens of thousands in campaign contributions over the last year, including $15,000 from the PACs of Sallie Mae and Nelnet alone. In the past, the senators have also been top recipients of loan industry largess: Sallie Mae and Nelnet both maxed out to Bill Nelson in the space of three days during his 2006 campaign; two of Tom Carper’s three top career contributors are JP Morgan and Citigroup — both major players in the student loan industry; Ben Nelson has received $19,000 from Nelnet’s PAC in the past ten years.
  • Jim Webb, Carper, and Ben Nelson sided with banks, and against students, on a key education measure in 2007. Nelson also sponsored a failed 2007 amendment that would have maintained government subsidies to private student lenders.

The report documents a host of additional ties between the six senatorial defenders of the status quo and the main organs of the student loan industry.

Given that deeply indebted students and young adults have little discretionary income to devote to catered dinners for senators and campaign coffers, we can only hope that transparency and accountability will balance the scales.