Reasons to Disregard 11th-hour Memo on Student Loans

January, 2021

Washington – The Trump administration is making an eleventh-hour attempt to limit the ability of the incoming Biden administration to provide relief to federal student loan borrowers.  

A new memorandum from an acting deputy general counsel at the Department of Education interprets very narrowly the Secretary of Education's statutory powers to compromise and settle loans.  The memorandum, however, is off-base in describing the provision in question and makes major omissions regarding its historical interpretation and use.  

In the 1990s, I worked at the Office of Legislation and Congressional Affairs at the department; the following decade I initiated litigation (largely successful) involving the provisions in question.  So I am familiar with the territory covered by the memorandum.   

I recall many internal department discussions in the 1990s about the use of 20 U.S.C. 1082, which gives the Secretary powers and duties to compromise and settle loan disputes.  The statute was enacted many decades ago for the purpose of protecting the interests of the United States, which included the integrity of federal student loan programs.  If other remedies to straighten out disputes failed, the Secretary could step in by law.  

At that time, most disputes involved guaranty agencies, which handled the majority of federal student loans; the federal direct loan program was in its infancy and would not fully replace the bank-based loan system until 2010.  Guaranty agencies' extensive powers and duties, for which they were funded by fees and federal payments, included authority over "cancelled loans...[and] borrower refunds, including those arising out of student or other borrower claims and defenses."

More than a few times at OLCA I had occasion to call guaranty agencies about loan disputes and request that they resolve them or else the Secretary would have to act.  Those who administered the bank-based program in the early and mid-1990s, including secondary markets, were government agencies or non-profits, and usually resolved problems without further conflict.*

That changed toward the end of the decade, as government-sponsored enterprises and non-profits began to convert to for-profit status.  In the early 2000s, previously unheard of profit levels tempted many student loan entities to cut corners on servicing and on federal subsidy claims.  After successive audits by the department's inspector general showed fraudulent claims by lenders, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings concurred with the audit conclusions in a January, 2007, decision, but notably gave blanket amnesty to all lenders that had made false claims.  They would not have to repay so long as they agreed not to make more.

This action was approved by the Department of Justice and the Office of Management and Budget, based on the Secretary's power to compromise and settle.   The generous treatment of lenders cost federal taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, at a minimum.  The Secretary said the total amount was unknowable and did not offer an estimate. She said she acted so as to prevent even greater losses.

All of which undermines the new memorandum's assertion that the Secretary is required to collect debts under the Federal Claims Collection Act**, which obligates agencies to “try to collect a claim of the United States Government for money . . . arising out of the activities of, or referred to, the agency."  That was brushed aside in 2007.   It also undermines arguments in the memorandum that settlements must be done on an individual, "case-by-case" basis, and that settling creates an unacceptable "moral hazard."  

To omit decades of history of the application of the statute at issue is a fundamental flaw of the new memorandum.  

As to what the limits of the powers are in 2021, I have suggested previously that compromise and settlement of borrowers' loans apply to all issues of program integrity, a long-standing interpretation going back decades. That includes the mishandling of "borrower defense" loan discharges, for which Secretary Betsy DeVos was once threatened with jail by a federal judge for failing to cancel loans as required by law; and the maladministration of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which once was described in a headline, "Your Student Loan Servicer Will Call You Back in a Year. Sorry."  It may also extend to borrowers who never had an opportunity to raise issues about their loans because of the DeVos-created doctrine of "preemption," under which consumer protection investigations by state attorneys general, among others, were never allowed to proceed by Secretary DeVos.  That doctrine has now been set aside by many federal courts, but borrowers have had no relief from the deprivation of their consumer rights.  

The compromise and cancellation powers clearly can be used to provide protection of the United States from huge financial losses.  Through the use of the powers in cases where institutions have defrauded borrowers, and by requiring the schools to contribute to paying the costs, a strong signal would be sent to institutions to re-think business plans that rely on misleading and defrauding students (and sometimes parents) so as to profit from defenseless federal taxpayers left holding future defaults.  

As to more general student loan cancellations, a case can be made that the very size of total borrower debt, and the troubling numbers of those unable ever to pay off their debts, indicate a breakdown of the federal loan program itself.  There have been many recent proposals to reduce debt interest or principal, to adjust terms, to assign loans to reformed programs, and to target relief by demographic categories.  Many of these ideas have merit and should be pursued through legislation.  Some might be accommodated through the Secretary's compromise and settlement authority, if appropriately tied to historical interpretation and precedent.  It is worth the effort, should legislative remedies not succeed.

However that turns out, it can already be said that the eleventh-hour memorandum from the Trump administration is not well-founded and should be disregarded by the incoming administration. 


* All were mindful of the late 1980s' collapse of the Higher Education Assistance Fund (HEAF), a Minnesota-based guaranty agency that federal taxpayers bailed out at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. 

** On the occasion of the new memorandum's mention of the Federal Claims Collection Act, it seems appropriate to ask whether the Secretary has collected $22 million from lender Navient's false claims, which unpaid debt is over a decade old.  See  

The Case for Methodical and Bi-Partisan Impeachment

January, 2021

Washington –  What a week. The accounts of those trapped in the U.S. Capitol, calling for help, are the most unsettling to me. Moving furniture in front of doors, keeping quiet. 

I worked in the Senate from 1979-84 and spent much time there, and in the House, from 1994-2001 as a federal agency congressional liaison.  I've been back many times on various missions as a private citizen.  

There must be consequences for those who committed crimes and for those who incited them.

The best way forward, unless someone has a better plan, is to impeach the President to hold him accountable, so he cannot run for office again, but to do it methodically over weeks or months. There seems to be no realistic way to do it in the few days remaining in his term. 

 The House should allow time for evidence to be gathered and other legal processes to move forward in the judicial system (both federal and state), so as to draft the articles properly. The House would then act to impeach, but hold the articles and not send them to the Senate until the votes are there to convict. Well-drafted and substantiated articles, passed with bi-partisan support from at least a few House Republicans, could result in a Senate conviction. 

Impeachment articles should not be sent to the Senate if there is a substantial risk of acquittal. The act of a second impeachment is of huge consequence itself. It would also inform the historical record.

Impeachment should take a deliberate back seat to moving ahead with President Joe Biden's legislative agenda, which will seek bipartisan cooperation. Success with that agenda could pave the way for Senate conviction of Trump so as to preclude him from running again for any office.

This suggestion is similar to one I made in 2019, that the House should censure Donald Trump for his impeachable offenses, then initiate impeachment proceedings but not send impeachment articles to the Senate until there was a reasonable chance of conviction.  Had the House held the first impeachment articles in abeyance, for however long, they would have been both a restraint on Trump's behavior and available in a crisis to be sent to the Senate for action.*

The key words now are methodical and bi-partisan.  This will allow much new information to be gathered, including the possibility that impeachable offenses by others in office will be discovered.  Once Donald Trump is no longer in power to wield fear of retribution, many who were a part of his administration may choose to cooperate with investigations, both congressional and judicial, to create a truthful record of the times.  

Proceeding this way also allows the nation's focus to return to fighting the raging pandemic and shoring up cybersecurity measures, two other crises that need immediate and undivided attention.

If there is a need to remove the President before his term expires, the most likely route, it seems to me, would be for a handful of Senate Republicans to advise the Vice President that they will bolt the party if he does not act to invoke the 25th Amendment.  Senate Democrats could aid this process by assuring the Senators that they would not lose their committee assignments and rankings for taking such action.  Students of comparative government will recognize this as akin to actions in parliamentary systems, through which coalitions are formed to get through crises.   


* Sending the impeachment articles to the Senate without the votes to convict was a major blunder by House Speaker Pelosi and the Democratic Leadership; we have now suffered the consequences.      

The Colossal Crises

January, 2021

Washington and Lincoln –  In September, 2016, this blog predicted a "colossal crisis" if Donald Trump were to be elected.  Now we have three such crises simultaneously: a cybersecurity invasion by Russia that might, at any time, bring our nation operationally to its knees; a raging pandemic made worse by an inept federal response; and an insurrection resulting in a breach of Capitol security during the counting of electoral votes under the Constitution.  

The rest of the free world is appalled; the world's dictators exult over the shame of it all.  

The prediction of colossal presidential failure was not hard to make.  The man had no government experience and had never served in the military (he was a draft-dodger).  He was a bankrupt (several times over), a serial philanderer, and was well-known in business for stiffing his contractors.  He was a fabulist, a liar.  His personal behavior was indecent.  

The real surprise was not his foundering, but why so many Americans voted for him in the first place.  I continue to shake my head as to why my fellow Nebraskans, decent folk mostly, not once, but twice gave him overwhelming approval at the polls.  

What were they thinking?  Trump was hardly a conservative; many of his policies stood traditional conservatism on its head.   A certain percentage of the population is always attracted to buffoonery in the cause of grievance, perhaps one in five at most, but not three or even four of five, as many Nebraska counties voted.   It did not help, of course, that Democrats conducted poor campaigns, but that does not account for the Trump enthusiasm exhibited by many Nebraska voters.  

I believe the answer lies in understanding the power of mass media propaganda.  Media manipulation techniques were developed and perfected by Joseph Goebbels in service to the Nazis.  They were demonstrated contemporaneously in America by Father Charles Coughlin.  If you have ever seen Dr. Goebbels and Father Coughlin at work, in old film clips, you are not surprised at their success.  

Coughlin is a model for modern-day propagandists, exemplified by Murdoch media and its imitators.  The once-obscure priest dominated mass communications in the 1930s, as Murdoch saturates it now.  

Goebbels is remembered not only for his use of radio, movies, newspapers, and rallies, but for his exploitation of the Big Lie approach to news-making.  The bigger the lie, the better, on the theory that it must be true because no one would dare say it otherwise.  It was then repeated over and over, on the premise that it must be true or it would not be repeated so often.  The Big Lie then was accepted in the public consciousness, because "everyone knows" it's true.  

Which brings us to the latest version of what "everyone knows":  that the 2020 election was a landslide victory for Trump.  People flocked this week to a Goebbelsian rally and were incited to storm the U.S. Capitol to keep the Big Lie alive.  A few died in the cause that they were convinced was patriotic.  A few of the stormers may be thugs, but most, it seems to me, are victims of the propagandists.  

The question of the moment is how to overcome the three colossal crises now at hand.  The resignation of cabinet and other high-ranking officials does little to help.  The propagandists must stand down.    

The Department of Education "lies in ruins." Now what?

January, 2021

Washington – Readers of this blog will not be surprised to find me in agreement with much of what the New York Times said yesterday in an editorial about the U.S. Department of Education. Its subhead read, in words hard to improve upon, that the department "lies in ruins...."


Yet another set of lawsuits has shown how the companies that are handsomely paid to collect student loans aggravate the debt crisis by giving advice that costs borrowers money while earning the companies cash.

Comments I have heard after the appearance of the editorial, however, are not all complementary. "What took them so long," was one. "Where have they been? They should have been all over this as it was happening," was another.

That's true. And it was only at the very end that the editorial got around to noting the issues with student loan servicers, with an outdated link at that.

These scandals have been covered in this blog for a long time.  But it's good, at long last, to have company of any kind, however tardy, however inadequate.

What is the new secretary of education going to do about profound problems in federal student financial aid programs?

Unfortunately, the history of the department does not suggest early resolution. Most secretaries in the past have been oriented toward K-12 education and do not learn about higher education failures until too late.

That must not happen again. The Biden Administration needs to staff top department positions with those who have been fighting fraud, waste, abuse, and corruption all along, not those who will have a long learning curve or, heaven forbid, those who will be eager to perpetuate the mistakes of the past. This is not a time for revolving door appointments.

The New York Times can do us all a favor by following up its editorial with hard-hitting news stories that further substantiate its positions, and hold the new administration's feet to the fire on ways for the department to rise from the ruins.

Unknown Nebraska Hero

December, 2020

Lincoln – This fall, when the spread of Covid-19 was raging across Nebraska, one person, an unidentified state employee working in a Unicameral office, came to the rescue.  He or she identified an existing state law that allows cities to implement necessary countermeasures of their choosing against infectious diseases. It is Neb. Rev. Stat. § 16-238.

Cities and local health departments across the state quickly acted on this discovery, many choosing to implement mask mandates and to take other appropriate actions. The Covid curve has now bent downward as a result.

They had not done this before, based on instructions from the governor and the attorney general, who either did not know of this statute, or chose not to inform local governments of its existence.  Both the governor and the attorney general, in fact, had threatened local officials with legal consequences for acting without their permission.  The governor and attorney general were following the lead of the president, who ridiculed mask-wearing and told the country the virus would soon go away on its own.  

At the same time the state employee discovered the key statute, many doctors, nurses, and hospital leaders intensified their pleas to the public to limit gatherings and to wear masks.   They testified at public hearings across the state in support of measures authorized by the heretofore neglected law.  

It worked.  Nebraska is now in a much better place as it continues to fight the pandemic.  Lincoln and Omaha, which had already defied the governor and attorney general based on other statutes, saw their hospital conditions improve because of fewer patients coming from Nebraska's other jurisdictions. 

I called the office of Senator Justin Wayne in the state capitol, where the unknown hero works, and asked to know his or her name.  The receptionist declined to tell me, other than that the person indeed works in that office.  I asked the receptionist if she was that person.  She laughed and said no.

But I asked her to pass along the heartfelt thanks of a Nebraska taxpayer who is getting his money's worth from the work of one unknown Nebraska hero.  One person can indeed make a difference.  On behalf of many whose very lives may have been saved, thank you. 

Reality at Bryan Hospital

December, 2020

Lincoln – Nebraska's Covid crisis is out of control.  Despite repeated pleas from health professionals, pandemic avoidance measures are being ignored by far too many people. 

An account of the dire situation in one Lincoln hospital, Bryan Memorial, has just appeared in the Lincoln Journal Star.  It is the best Covid reporting I have seen this year, from anyone, anywhere.   The author is Chris Dunker.

The situation developed because of, and is exacerbated by, dangerously inept political leadership, which is only getting worse.  When hospitalizations declined slightly in recent days, because of a raised bar for admissions, desperate entreaties from doctors and nurses, and new mask mandates from more local governments, Governor Ricketts relaxed countermeasures against group gatherings, the effect of which will be to push hospitals once again past their limits. 

It is as if the Governor is watching for any available hospital space, so as to fill it up with new patients.  For months he has refused to look at numbers of cases or deaths, but to the availability of hospital beds for his basic guidance.  

Despite the recent exemplary reporting, Nebraska's fourth estate has not distinguished itself in calling out the deficient political leadership that is costing hundreds of Nebraskans their lives, needlessly.  The press has customarily reported on the Governor's pronouncements as if they were public service announcements, and not taken the opportunity simultaneously to inform the public that those fighting the Covid battles on the front lines have been screaming, sometimes literally, that more must be done beyond the Governor's weak responses to the pandemic challenge.  

Joe Biden and Tom Vilsack

December, 2020

Washington – Tom Vilsack will be nominated for Secretary of Agriculture.  Some readers of this blog may have preferred other candidates, like Chellie Pingree, Steve Bullock, Marcia Fudge, or Heidi Heitkamp, each of whom also brought strong credentials to bolster their cases for the job.  

But none of them could match the personal relationship that Tom Vilsack has with President-elect Joe Biden.  That is a big advantage on which Vilsack should be able to capitalize, to great benefit for food and agriculture causes. The fact that Marcia Fudge will take over at HUD means her voice for better American nutrition will be heard in the Biden cabinet as well. 

Two points stood out for me in the announcement naming Vilsack: 

● "He is committed to helping farmers, ranchers and producers by creating new and growing markets here and around the world, identifying new income opportunities as rural landowners use their land to sequester carbon and generate renewable energy and fuel, and supporting regenerative farming practices."

● "Vilsack will be a trusted partner to the President-elect. He will expand access to safe, affordable, nutritious food for those most in need; build resilient rural economies; invest in communities that struggle with persistent poverty; and fight the opioid epidemic."

The best way Tom Vilsack can achieve these goals is to use his influence with Joe Biden to elevate the causes above the department level, so as to incorporate them into the thinking and priorities at the Council of Economic Advisors, the Office of Management and Budget, the office of the Climate Envoy, and the Domestic Policy Council.  

There are no more important issues in America than climate change and ruinous epidemics magnified  by poor nutrition.  They need urgent action at the highest levels. If that is something Tom Vilsack can achieve — and I believe he can — then he is the right person for the job and he deserves everyone's support.  Proof of his success will come when Ceci Rouse, Neera Tanden, and Susan Rice become the leading advocates of the Biden rural plan.  

It is also no secret that Tom Vilsack has told Joe Biden in no uncertain terms that rural America must not be neglected, as Democrats have been doing for years at their own peril.  His nomination shows an acknowledgement of that and with it, we hope, a long overdue reversal of Democratic fortunes in the heartland, to be led by the President himself, for the good of the two-party system and the very future of American democracy.      

Student Loan Debt Remains a Hot Topic

December, 2020

Washington – The Biden Administration has big decisions to make on student loans.  Here are some suggestions.

Immediately:  Support bipartisan legislation to treat student loans as other consumer debt is treated and, administratively, develop new, more flexible standards to determine conditions under which to oppose borrower bankruptcies.  Such changes will not only assist borrowers in need of a new start, as recognized even in the Constitution, but provide better incentives throughout the student loan system to help borrowers in trouble, as opposed to mistreating them on the assumption they cannot take bankruptcy. 

So go big on straightening out bankruptcy, as it is long overdue.  

Immediately:  Use existing "compromise and settlement "powers (20 U.S.C. 1082) to begin addressing pending cases hung up in borrower defense litigation and in servicer mismanagement of loan cancellation programs, such as disability discharges and public service loan forgiveness.  The guiding principle should be that if a borrower is in trouble because of the actions, mistakes, or misrepresentations of a school, guaranty agency, servicer, accreditor, or government agency, the Secretary will take action to slice through the matter using these powers, regardless of the Gordian knots fashioned as obstacles by the Trump Administration.  

So go big on rescuing borrowers who are in student loan hell through no fault of their own.   

Quickly:  Determine workable paths to provide general student loan relief for those (a) most in need, which will provide (b) the most benefit to the pandemic-damaged economy, and which will provide (c) long-term student debt solutions.  Choosing the wrong paths may achieve some goals at the expense of others.  

The way to find the best paths is by examining equities.  The best paths will have not only vertical and horizontal equities within the borrower population, but also across economic sectors and over time.  

A place to start is the excellent article "How the Biden Administration Can Free Americans from Student Debt," by Astra Taylor, who argues, with impressive sourcing, for a student debt jubilee, essentially wiping out existing student debt through administrative action.  This could do well by (b) and would achieve a measure of equity across economic sectors, inasmuch as much corporate debt has been wiped away twice in this century for economic reasons.  

But it does not fulfill (a) as it falls short in terms of vertical (need based) equity and it does not adequately address (c). As to the latter, the Biden Administration should not accept the jubilee premise that "the slate must periodically be wiped clean."  Cancelling debt without addressing the underlying causes that created such mountains of it only sets up succeeding generations for the same trouble.

There is another problem: under current law, the amount of cancellation is taxable, diminishing its benefit both to individuals and to the economy.  While the Secretary of Education has the authority to cancel debt, the power to change the tax code rests in Congress, according to most authorities, not with the Secretary of the Treasury. 

Which means that the bests paths to achieve (a), (b), and (c) run through legislation, and the best way to get legislative action may be a promise to use executive action as a blunt instrument should legislation fail.  

But there is good reason to believe legislation could succeed if the right parties are at the table to make it happen.  Foremost among them would be those (of both conservative and progressive persuasions) who want the debt relief to be need-based.  The higher education community must also be represented with a convincing case that it would be better to commit potentially hundreds of billions of dollars* on ways to prevent future debt crises than to put it toward cancelling debt for those who have no strong case for cancellation.  For example, the higher education community should be ready to condition participation in HEA Title IV programs on use of federal aid, like Pell Grants, to reduce or eliminate borrowing.  And that is only for starters.     

A place at the table should also be made for those who prefer dealing with debt issues through the tax expenditure side of the equation; that is, potentially through need-based, refundable tax credits both to give relief and to provide self-initiated resolution of claims and benefits.  This could relieve much administrative burden.  It could also set the stage for moving the whole student loan collection process away from troubled servicers toward tax-based repayments, as has been successfully demonstrated in several other countries.  

Legislative solutions could and should be bi-partisan; the current situation in the financing of higher education is appalling from many perspectives.  

The best way for the Biden Administration to proceed is to act aggressively at the outset to deal with bankruptcy and mismanagement issues, which are clearly within executive purview, and to put forth a legislative agenda to deal with issues best addressed by Congress.  

To keep the legislative initiative moving, a back-up plan should be readied for action to start cancelling debt by executive action to demonstrate unwavering commitment.  

For example, a first tier of such cancellation could be aimed at those who were Pell-eligible.  Demographic analyses, to take into consideration level of education, racial and gender imbalances, and even geographic considerations could inform the development of a systematic executive-action schedule for loan cancellation, to be triggered by how well the economy is doing as well as by prospects for legislative solutions.  This should replace various campaign offerings of $10,000 or $50,000 cancellations.

Going big, as recommended here, need not be seen as going partisan, and must not be, so as to give the country our best chance to overcome the huge student debt imbroglio for good. 

* How much of this is real money is in doubt.  Of the $1.6 trillion of student loan debt, according to a recent analysis, $435 billion may be uncollectible and has effectively been written off.  This is nearly the size of the subprime mortgage crisis that triggered the Great Recession.  However, it is offset in federal budget scoring by fees and higher than market interest rates on student loans (especially on parent loans), which only exacerbates the problem and leads to more borrowers being put at risk.  This is a vicious cycle in which the true amount probably extends well beyond even the $435 billion identified.  Nevertheless, there are still substantial sums that are in repayment, in the hundreds of billions although not in the trillions.         

Three New Law Review Articles on Student Loans

November, 2020

Washington –  Three new, notable law review articles on student loans deserve the attention of the entire higher education community, especially those concerned about lapses in administering student loans at the U.S. Department of Education.  Each of the articles also intersects with topics explored in this blog in recent years.  

First is "Illusory Due Process: The Broken Student Loan Hearing System," by Deanne Loonin, in which the author provides an inside look at how federal contractors go through the motions of due process to give the appearance that student loans are administered under the rule of law.  The article presents original research, observation, and analysis never before published and is a remarkable contribution to the higher education literature. Toward the end of the article, reforms are offered to reverse the descent of the department and its contractors to such unacceptable levels.  One draws on, and quotes from, this blog's conclusion that corruption within the agency is an underlying cause of the descent. 

Second is David S. Rubenstein's "State Regulation of Federal Contractors: Three Puzzles of Procurement Preemption."   From the abstract: 

This article unpacks three doctrinal puzzles at the intersection of federalism and federal contracting, using student loan law as its anchoring case study. Currently, more than $1 trillion of federal student loan debt is serviced by private financial institutions under contract with the Department of Education. These loan servicers have allegedly engaged in systemic consumer abuses but are seldom held accountable by the federal government. To bridge the accountability gap, several states have recently passed “Student Borrower Bills of Rights.” These state laws include provisions to regulate the student loan servicing industry, including the Department’s federal contractors. States undoubtedly have legitimate interests to protect their residents, communities, and local economies against industry malfeasance. The overarching question, however, is whether federal law prohibits states from performing this remedial function.

Although this article is a thorough discussion of many aspects of "preemption," it would have been even more instructive had the author explained why the Department of Education under Secretary Betsy DeVos suddenly inflicted the dubious doctrine on the student loan world in 2018.  It was in considerable part due to favored contractors' loss of sovereign immunity, much discussed in this blog in previous posts.  One of the first actions of the Biden Administration should be to withdraw the DeVos preemption edict, not only on grounds that it hurts borrowers, but that several courts across the country have found it wanting.

Third is "The Sovereign Shield," by Kate Sablosky Elengold and Jonathan Glater.  The authors explore how agencies like the Department of Education are subject to capture by interest groups. They even name names, as in this passage: 

The case of student loan servicers illustrates potential capture concerns all along the spectrum. We turn again to PHEAA as an illustration of the revolving door between industry and government. Sally Stroup, for example, spent twelve years on the staff of PHEAA before staffing the House Education and Workforce Committee, had a brief stopover as a lobbyist for Apollo Education Group, which represents for-profit colleges and universities, and then was named as the Assistant Secretary of Postsecondary Education in President George W. Bush’s Department of Education.  Ms. Stroup is far from the only example. One of President Donald Trump’s most trusted campaign advisors now owns the lobbying firm representing PHEAA, Kathleen Smith, a former DeVos top aide, has been hired by PHEAA as senior vice president and director of federal relations, and a former PHEAA executive, Robert Cameron, was named the CFPB’s private student loan ombudsman, a job that has been called “the nation’s top [student loan] watchdog.”

The question the authors don't address, but should, is whether this is not just capture, but racketeering and corruption.  Such has been suggested before in the "Iron Triangle" series of this blog, naming the same names and several more.  A fuller treatment is offered in Dan E. Moldea's 2020 book,  Money, Politics, and Corruption in U.S. Higher Education.  

All three of the above law journal articles are required reading for those who want to understand current student loan dilemmas and choices confronting the nation.  In times past, the higher education trade press covered these matters; now it is increasingly only law journals.  But at least, as illustrated by these outstanding articles, someone is paying attention to the lows to which a major federal agency has fallen.     

Listening to Trump Voters

November, 2020

Lincoln – Our American democratic institutions have been tested, but they held.  We have conducted a free and fair presidential election.  Joe Biden won the popular vote by six million; the electoral vote will turn out to have a substantial margin as well.  

This does not mean our democratic norms won't be tested again, and soon.  The fact that over 70 million voters chose Donald Trump, who delighted in upending our institutions, over Joe Biden, a dedicated institutionalist, signals that we have not heard the last of whatever it is that has made so many Americans down on the very foundations of our country.

We need to find out just what that is.  We should hear, systematically, from Trump voters to learn more about what drives their deeply-felt opinions and grievances.

Some three and a half years ago, I suggested that Democrats were out of touch with voters, especially in the rural heartland, and that they should do an "Eat Crow Tour" to listen to why voters rejected them.  Part of the problem, I thought, was simply neglect, which could be remedied by multiple heartfelt apologies.  Obviously, that idea went nowhere.  

It's time to resuscitate it, but make it over without any party ownership.  Call it the American Unity Project or something that suggests goodwill and a genuine desire to learn what drives so many people to embrace candidates and policies that are not in the American political tradition.

Or maybe they are; it's just different traditions that are re-asserting themselves.  

I suggest that several non-partisan civic organizations band together to hold hearing-like sessions around the country to take public testimony.  The testimony should not seek balance; it should be invited from Trump supporters, to give them a chance, for better or worse, to be heard.  The testimony should be recorded and archived, to be analyzed by scholars and non-partisan individuals who can sort it out for common threads and themes.

Who could preside over the taking of such testimony?  I'm sure there are plenty of people who have the credibility and the demeanor to do so.  Not everyone in the country is at everyone else's throat.  I'd certainly like to hear from rural Trump voters about what shapes their political behavior.  And to know if their opinions of Trump have changed any after he sought to overturn the election.    

As a political scientist, I have hypotheses about what we might hear, but I am not a Trump voter.  There is nothing like collecting actual evidence.  There is also the cathartic effect that could be a substantial benefit from the effort. 

I am not willing to trust the future of the country to a few pundits or propagandists who give us their wisdom about how to read the results of the 2020 election.  We need to hear from citizens themselves to understand just what has driven them to the brink of unraveling America and to see what repairs are in order to keep it from actually happening.   The repairs to our institutions might not be as difficult as we think, but if they are, we need to know that, too.