Harkin Hamstrings Higher-Ed Reform

After weeks of squabbling on whether rates on federally subsidized Stafford loans would be tied to market-based interest rates or not, President Obama signed the long-awaited student loan interest rate bill on August 9th, 39 days after the old student loan rate expired. For students preparing to go back to school in August, many of which were probably making hard decisions about how to pay for it, those were 39 precious days of indecision. Thankfully, the bill’s provisions apply retroactively, making those weeks of concern irrelevant.

But this should have been a much easier process. Aside from on whether interest rates would be capped or not, the House GOP’s starting point on solving the issue was essentially identical to President Obama’s. Both from the outset, favored the solution that was ultimately signed into law – market-based rates. So why did it take so long to hammer out an agreement?

The answer lies in the misguided approach of progressive Democrats on the Senate Education Committee. And by most accounts, nobody was throwing more sand in the gears of the process than Iowa Democratic Senator Tom Harkin, Chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

First, there is this Roll Call story from July 17th, which essentially blames Harkin for the holdup:

Of all the senators involved in talks on the issue, it has been Harkin who has been most reluctant to sign off on an agreement…

Harkin, along with Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren, has been insistent that an   agreement should not raise money off the backs of students. Warren has not been in the room for the recent bipartisan talks.

Frustration with Harkin ran so high Wednesday that GOP negotiators mulled not attending the bipartisan meeting in Durbin’s office.

On the way to a late afternoon vote, in a Capitol elevator, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., urged his fellow GOP negotiators Richard M. Burr of North Carolina and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee   to cancel the meeting. Just an hour and a half before it was set to be held, Coburn expressed frustration that the clear edict from the White House to just dispense with the issue was being ignored by Senate progressives who were not on board with the bipartisan push.

On August 1st, Whiteboard Advisors, a non-partisan educational consulting firm, released its monthly survey of bipartisan industry experts, who comment anonymously on various issues in education policy. Various questions on the lack of progress on a student loan bill, and other issues, contained similar answers:

“Tom Harkin”

“Tom Harkin will have retired by 2015 and that’s the only hope”

“Tom Harkin and everyone to the left of him. That drama is playing out in public so everyone can see – with a broadly bipartisan bill awaiting a vote – who is holding everything up.”

“Tom Harkin”

“No one wants to use common sense to solve some basic problems. Thank God Senators Manchin and Alexander came together for a reasonable proposal. Senator Harkin needs to go.”

I emailed a former staffer for a Republican senator on the Education Committee, asking what Harkin’s office was like to work with

Ever heard a politician say publicly that he wants and is committed to a bicameral, or more importantly, a bipartisan process? Publicly, that’s Senator Harkin’s office. Behind closed doors however, emails from Republican staff about higher education reform and the for-profit debacle went unanswered, calls went nowhere and there was no working across the aisle to find common ground. Often, we would find out about a new hearing 24 hours in advance, with no opportunity to choose a witness or do anything other than look at each other and curse. How’s that for bipartisan?

On August 8th, Harkin gave an interview to the Des Moines Register lamenting the House leadership’s lack of action on various bills: “[Boehner] has to decide: Does he want to be a speaker that just blocks everything or does he want to be a speaker that’s recognized as getting things accomplished?” Little did Harkin know (or maybe he did, and didn’t care) that his Chairmanship was frustrating the student loan bill from going anywhere.

Harkin’s other big stand on higher ed has been his report last year on the for-profit higher education industry. In fairness, I think the for-profit higher education industry, apart from a few schools, is a scam. But that question is never examined in light of how many non-profit schools are operating. In truth, many non-profits perform as badly as for-profits, abusing the federal financial aid system and preying on consumers who are uninformed on the decisions they are making. Instead of going after higher ed at large, Harkin demonized for-profits exclusively. As he told PBS News, “…the for-profits do a much better job of recruiting and advertising than the nonprofits do. Let’s face it: The nonprofits don’t make a profit, so they’re not heavily into advertising and promoting.” Anyone who has set foot on a non-profit college campus knows that A) they really hustle to enroll students B) they devote a ton of resources to advertising and C) they are often money-making machines, even if they are technically a tax-exempt organization.

Thankfully, Senator Harkin has announced that he will not seek re-election in 2014. Should Republicans capture the upper chamber, odds are good that former Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander (R-TN) will be the next chairman of the Committee. But if Democrats hold their ground, Republicans will have to contend with Harkin’s ideological bedfellow, Elizabeth Warren. Warren herself put forward a number of unpopular ideas that went nowhere during the student loan debate. Hopefully, she can learn to cut her losses early. Its a shame that Harkin, in the Senate since 1985, has not.


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