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PA’s Fitzpatrick votes with Dems to torpedo DeVos student loan rule

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On the same day the U.S. Senate started only the third impeachment trial in the nation’s history, majority Democrats on the other side of Capitol Hill delivered another rebuke to President Donald Trump’s White House.

The House voted 231-180 on Jan. 16 to approve a resolution overturning a Trump administration rule that critics say guts protections for defrauded student loan borrowers. The resolution expresses congressional disapproval of the so-called borrower defense rule, which was revised by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. 

US Education Secretary Betty DeVos’ visit to Harrisburg Sept. 19, 2019 stirred up controversy

All nine Democratic members of Pennsylvania’s delegation, joined by U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-1st District, voted in favor of the resolution. The remaining eight GOP members of the Pennsylvania contingent on Capitol Hill voted against it, according to an official House roll call.

Fitzpatrick, whose Bucks County-based district has been targeted for a takeover by Democrats, was one of six Republicans to crossover to vote with Democrats. Meanwhile, 18 lawmakers— six Democrats and 12 Republicans — did not cast votes.

“By passing this resolution, the House made it clear that we care more about defending defrauded students than enriching predatory schools,” U.S. Rep. Susie Lee, D-Nev., who led the push for the resolution, said in a press conference after the vote. “We told Betsy DeVos that we’re not going to sit on the sidelines while these institutions scam our families, our friends, our neighbors and our veterans.”

On Twitter on Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Susan Wild, D-7th District, who’s been an outspoken proponent of student loan reform, heaped scorn on DeVos.

“When I questioned [DeVos] on her refusal to process the existing claims of students defrauded by predatory colleges, she made it clear she had no interest in these, or future, students getting their day in court,” Wild wrote “I’m voting to block her new rule.”

When I questioned @BetsyDeVosED on her refusal to process the existing claims of students defrauded by predatory colleges, she made it clear she had no interest in these, or future, students getting their day in court. "I’m voting to block her new rule.

In a Thursday tweet, U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans, D-3rd District, a “yes” vote on the resolution, accused DeVos of “protecting predatory schools, instead of defrauded students and U.S. taxpayers.”

DeVos’ revisions to the Obama-era program make the process for applying for and granting loan forgiveness unnecessarily difficult and burdensome, the resolution’s supporters said. That has left defrauded students — many of whom are low-income, of color or have served in the military — with useless degrees, crushing debt and little recourse for relief. 

“These are Americans we should be standing up for, not taking advantage of,” said Lee, who has worked at nonprofit organizations in the education sector.

U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., the ranking member on the House Education and Labor Committee, defended DeVos’ revisions on the House floor Thursday, calling them common-sense changes that are needed to address serious flaws in the Obama-era policy, increase transparency and save taxpayers billions of dollars. 

At the same time, she charged Democrats with ulterior motives.

The resolution — passed the day after House Democrats delivered articles of impeachment to the U.S. Senate — is “the latest attempt by House Democrats to undermine the Trump administration,” Foxx said. “It seems these attempts will never end.”

In floor remarks, U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker, R-11th District, said the resolution “[undermines]  the Trump administration, while preventing students from making educational choices that best meet their needs.”

Smucker discusses the Borrower Defense to Repayment CRA - "Despite all of these commonsense measures, today’s CRA seeks to move us backwards, simply to undermine the Trump Administration, while preventing students from making educational choices that best meet their needs."

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., has introduced a similar resolution in the Senate and said Thursday he is reaching out to GOP colleagues to garner their support. U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., is among the resolutions Democratic co-sponsors

Trump veto threat

The resolution faces an uphill battle in the GOP-controlled Senate and Trump has threatened to veto the resolution. 

But Nevada’s Lee said in an interview earlier this week that the resolution nonetheless serves as a valuable “check” on the administration’s student loan policies. 

“Every state in this country has thousands of students that have been defrauded by these predatory schools,” she said. Opponents of the resolution are “going to have to go back to their constituents and explain their vote on this.”

Originally conceived as a form of consumer protection, the borrower defense rule was rarely used until claims began to pile up from students who had been enrolled in for-profit colleges. A big spike in claims came after the closure of Corinthian Colleges, which left hundreds of thousands of students in debt and with an education of little value.

In response, the Obama administration rewrote the rule to set up a system of loan forgiveness in cases of institutional misconduct. The rule took effect in October 2016, months before Trump took office. 

When DeVos took the helm of the Education Department, she said she wanted to rewrite the Obama-era rule, which she thought was too lenient. 

The Trump administration stopped processing new and pending claims and started work on new regulations. Meanwhile, student advocacy groups sued the agency for inaction. But as the battle works its way through the courts, the pending claims are still awaiting response and it is unclear when or how the department will process them.

Last year, the Education Department finalized its new regulations to oversee the process for future claims. Under the revised rule, students can still seek repayment regardless of whether their loan is in default, but it adds some requirements for repayment for future claims. 

DeVos testified on behalf of the change before the House Education and Labor Committee last month. “Any form of blanket approval for forgiveness is not fair to the taxpayers nor does it represent the spirit and intent of any of the borrower defense to repayment rules,” she said at the time.

House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Bobby Scott, D-Va., disagreed Thursday, saying in a statement that the Obama-era rule “provides a fair and streamlined process to provide debt relief to defrauded students.”

North Carolina’s Foxx, meanwhile, sided with the administration, calling the Obama-era rule “irresponsible” because it exceeded the scope of current practice, blurred the lines between fraud and inadvertent error and came with a “shocking” price tag.

“The Obama regulations created more chaos than clarity,” she said, and were essentially “a backdoor scheme to hand out free education.”

Allison Stevens, Capital-Star Washington Bureau, and award-winning PA Capital-
Star Editor-in-Chief
John L. Micek authored this article which first appeared in Pennsylvania Capital-Star.

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