Senate Might Rebuke DeVos on Borrower Defense

As Senate debates joining House in condemning Education Department rule on forgiving student loans, key Republicans are on the fence.

February 28, 2020
 
Getty Images/Mark Wilson
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos (right) at a 2018 meeting in the White House with President Trump

For all of President Trump’s controversial policies, it has been rare for the Republican Senate to formally condemn the administration. But lobbyists on both sides of the debate over U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos's borrower-defense rule say it’s increasingly possible that the Republican Senate could join the Democratic House in rebuking the administration over the rule critics say makes it harder for defrauded students to have their education loans forgiven.

Lobbyists representing groups who support as well as oppose the rule stop short of predicting that the resolution sponsored by Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois will pass. But they say several Republicans are on the fence, making it possible that the proposal could get the four Republican votes needed to pass.

Indeed, none of the eight moderate Republican senators, or those facing tough re-election races, contacted this week would say they will oppose the proposal. Instead aides either said the senators are undecided or declined to say where they stand.

“I’m hearing the resolution is in play,” said Steve Gonzalez, senior vice president of government, military and veterans' relations at Career Education Colleges and Universities. The group, which represents for-profit institutions, supports the rule and is lobbying against the resolution of disapproval.

The same assessment came from the other side. “In a time where partisan politics often is the headline of media stories, we are encouraged by the number of Republican offices who are willing to stand with service members, veterans, and their families,” emailed Carrie Wofford, a former Senate health committee aide and now president of Veterans Education Success, which is leading an effort by veterans' groups to lobby in favor of the resolution. Though all types of students are affected by the rule, it has faced particular opposition from veterans' groups.

Federal regulations require that no more than 90 percent of a for-profit institution's revenue come from federal student aid. But veterans have been particularly targeted by for-profit institutions, according to Wofford's group, because military education benefits do not count as student aid.

The resolution, which passed the Democratic House in January, is likely to be vetoed by Trump anyway. And Gonzalez dismissed it as mostly political grandstanding.

“For Senator Durbin and many of its supporters, it’s just an opportunity to throw egg on the administration’s face instead of doing the right thing,” Gonzalez said in an interview. “This is more a gotcha moment than actually trying to legislate.”

The resolution has substance, Veterans Education Success vice president Tanya Ang responded. “This is not about the administration or about partisan politics but rather about protecting students from schools who have taken advantage of or lied to student veterans.”

Beth Stein, senior adviser at the Institute for College Access & Success, wasn't willing to concede it would be vetoed. "The bipartisan support for defrauded students and veterans demonstrated in the House vote shows that the stories [members of Congress] from both parties hear from borrowers who have been lied to matter to them. We will see if the Senate and maybe even the President agree," she said in a statement.

Giving supporters of the measure hope is that six Republicans crossed party lines and backed the House measure. The Senate is required to vote on the resolution, though it’s uncertain when, an aide to Durbin said.

The Senate has passed similar resolutions opposing Trump’s policies over at least three issues. Eleven Republicans in November 2019 backed a resolution over his emergency declaration to access funds for a border wall. In June 2019, seven Republicans voted in favor of a resolution opposing arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other nations. Five of them also supported a resolution against arms sales benefiting Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and other nations.

In March 2018, three Republicans joined Democrats to disapprove of the Trump administration's replacement of net neutrality rules created during the Obama administration.

While it would be unusual for Republicans to openly reject a Trump administration policy, Gonzalez said some Republican senators facing tough re-election races might be worried about opposing a measure generating heated rhetoric.

In fact, Arizona Democratic Party spokesperson Brad Bainum on Thursday​ attacked Republican senator Martha McSally, who hasn't disclosed her position on the resolution and whose race against Democrat Mark Kelly is considered a "toss-up" by the Cook Political Report. "Martha McSally puts her party leaders and corporate interest donors first in Washington, so it's no surprise that she's willing to let Betsy DeVos sell out defrauded student borrowers after taking thousands from for-profit schools and over $72,000 from DeVos' extended family," Bainum​ said in a statement. Neither McSally's campaign nor her Senate office returned requests for comment.

The debate stems from a flood of loan-discharge applications after the collapse of the for-profit chain Corinthian Colleges in 2015. In response, the Obama administration clarified the government’s rules in 2016 to make it easier for students to get discharges.

For-profit institutions represented by Gonzalez’s group complained about being singled out. Some institutions worried the rule would put them on the hook for inadvertent marketing mistakes, as opposed to intentionally misrepresenting such things as the employability of graduates.

Balking, as well, at the Education Department's estimates that the rule could cost $42 billion over the next decade, DeVos in August announced her own rule.

While discharge applications currently fall under the Obama rule, those made after July 1 will come under DeVos’s tighter rules.

However, the rule is facing attack in Congress and the courts. Last week, the Project on Predatory Student Lending and Public Citizen Litigation Group jointly filed a federal lawsuit in New York that would block it.

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