All Articles Tagged "Congress"

Paycheck Garnishes For Student Loans Jump, Senate Fails To Act On Refinancing Law

June 15th, 2014 - By Tonya Garcia
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Data analyzed by The Wall Street Journal shows that paycheck garnishment for student loan borrowers was up 45 percent over the previous decade for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2013. The Education Department is actively collecting from borrowers who have defaulted on federal student loans even as debate rages on about what the government should do to help.

Borrowers are in default after missing 12 monthly payments. The government can begin taking as much as 15 percent of post-tax wages without court approval at that point. Though there are different circumstances that land borrowers in this position, many of those who are falling into default, according to the WSJ, are professionals who borrowed a ton to get their advanced degrees, or those who never finished. And many who find themselves getting their wages garnished end up in that position for quite some time.

“Wage garnishment is a tool of last resort used by the department to recover defaulted loans,” said Dorie Nolt, the spokesperson for the Education Department.

Some say the Education Department shouldn’t lend quite so much money. Others say there isn’t enough being done to let borrowers know about the repayment options.

And then there are the legislative measures that could be taken but haven’t. President Obama just signed an executive order to put a cap on student loan payments. An executive order doesn’t require Congressional approval, but they are also usually limited in scope.

The Senate voted this week on legislation that would allow borrowers to refinance their loans, legislation that was heavily supported by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and the President. How do you think that went? The legislation failed. Democrats thought it would be a good idea to let borrowers find a way to reduce student loan interest — which can get as high as nine percent — to as little as 3.86 percent. Republicans thought it wouldn’t be effective.

“Students can understand that this bill won’t make college more affordable. They understand it won’t reduce the amount of money they have to borrow. And students know it won’t do a thing to fix the that’s depriving so many young Americans of jobs,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell (R, KY).

However, there are others who say that this sort of help is necessary if borrowers are to reach their potential.

This issue deserves more than a partisan response. Allowing students and families to refinance their student loan debt should not be a partisan issue; it’s the right thing to do,” reads a statement from Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.We will continue to fight alongside Sen. Warren and others, including the courageous few Republicans who stood today with students and families, to chip away at this mountain of debt and reclaim the promise of higher education as a pathway to opportunity and success.”

The student loan crisis (yes, crisis, with a trillion dollars in debt) is hampering the financial efforts and stability of many Americans. In turn, it’s become a hurdle to greater economic growth for the country as a whole. Clearly we have to start somewhere, and helping those who are already in debt is a great place.

Can The Democrats Pull Off Iffy Move To Reinstate Unemployment Benefits?

March 12th, 2014 - By Ann Brown
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An unemployment rally at the New York Stock Exchange. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

An unemployment rally at the New York Stock Exchange. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Democrats in the House are trying to restore long-term unemployment insurance to two million workers by using a rare parliamentary maneuver, reports The Huffington Post.

Called a “discharge petition,” the procedural move must capture a majority of House members to support a discharging of the bill from a committee that has been stalled. But there really is not much hope the Dems can pull this off. They already failed once on another recent discharge petition concerning minimum wage legislation. They couldn’t gather the necessary 218 votes. However, they already have 100 Dems who say they’re ready to sign on.

In general, discharge petitions are unsuccessful. “Since 1931, when the maneuver took its current form, 563 discharge petitions have been filed but only 47 received 218 signatures, according to the Congressional Research Service. Over the past 30 years, seven petitions have made it to the signature threshold, and all of them received floor votes,” reports HuffPo.

However there is some strategy behind the latest move by the Democrats: they want to put pressure on Republicans.

“If my colleagues want to vote against the extension, I respect their right to disagree; but failing to even allow a vote goes against the very progress that families and our constituents demand,” said Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.), who will file the discharge petition. “Partisan politics must not be allowed to get in the way of doing the right thing for our middle class families. That’s why I’ll be filing a measure to end the gridlock and force a vote on extending unemployment insurance.” In an election year, this could be a powerful message.

Rep. Sander Levin’s (D-Mich.) unemployment insurance measure is stuck in the House Ways and Means Committee and it hasn’t even made it to the floor for a vote. Under Levin’s bill federal unemployment insurance would be restored until year’s end. Benefits would be available for workers who have used up six months of state compensation. At the end of December, benefits ended for 1.3 million workers and since then another 700,000 workers have lost theirs as well. Levin’s legislation gives workers lump-sum payments for missed benefits.

The move would help millions, as nearly four million workers have been unemployed six months or longer, according to the Labor Department.

But House Republicans want GOP-friendly provisions to be added to the bill.

“The Speaker has said repeatedly that if Senate Democrats can produce an extension of temporary emergency unemployment benefits that is not only paid-for, but also does something to actually create jobs, he will be happy to discuss it,” Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said in an email.

But the projections say otherwise; the Congressional Budget Office’s estimates say 200,000 jobs would be added if the insurance bill was enacted.

Democrats are taking it directly to the people with Sen. Cory Booker’s (D-NJ) sending an email asking voters to sign a petition to force Speaker of the House John Boehner’s hand. You can read more here.

For The First Time In History, A Majority Of Congress Members Are Millionaires

January 14th, 2014 - By Kimberly Gedeon
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via @DarrellIssa

Rep. Darrell Issa with former First Lady Laura Bush. via @DarrellIssa

The economic recovery for many Americans remains slow — but not for our lawmakers! For the first time ever, as reported by Entrepreneur, a majority of U.S. Congress members have a net worth of $1 million or more.

At least 268 politicians out of Congress’ 534 members are millionaires, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. The median net worth of all the members of Congress, in 2012, was a whopping $1,008,767.

This is up from $966,000, in 2011, when only 257 members were millionaires.

Of course, Congress has always been far wealthier than your average American.  “But the fact that now a majority of members — albeit just a hair over 50 percent — are millionaires represents a watershed moment at a time when lawmakers are debating issues like unemployment benefits, food stamps and the minimum wage,” the report revealed.

Voters, despite their dissatisfaction with Congress, are more inclined to support wealthy candidates to represent our interests in Congress, said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center. And not to mention how expensive it is to rally assistance and support for your campaign trail:

“Candidates need access to wealth to run financially viable campaigns, and the most successful fundraisers are politicians who swim in those circles to begin with,” Krumholz added.

The report also found that Democratic members of Congress were wealthier than their Republican counterparts. “Congressional Democrats had a median net worth of $1.04 million, while congressional Republicans had a median net worth of almost exactly $1 million.” Both sides saw a jump in net worth; these figures increased from $990,000 and $907,000, respectively.

The richest member in Congress was Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who oversees the House Oversight Committee and Government Reform Committee. With an average net worth $464 million in 2012, Issa is a self-made millionaire through his successful car alarm business.

The poorest member of Congress, Rep. David Valadao (R-Calif.), reported a net worth of negative $12.1 million in 2012. His debt is a result of  loans for his family’s dairy farm. But don’t worry, his current financial state is much better than 2011 when he reported a net worth of negative $19 million.

Congressional Budget Compromise Reached, But An Unemployment Benefits Extension Isn’t Included

December 11th, 2013 - By Tonya Garcia
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 Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray (D-WA) and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) in a press conference to announce the budget compromise. Photo by T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray (D-WA) and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) in a press conference to announce the budget compromise. Photo by T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images

Well surprise, surprise. Congressional leaders were able to compromise and put pen to paper on a two-year federal budget, postponing the cycle of brinksmanship on spending negotiations that led to the October government shutdown. The deadline for a budget is December 13. The previous deal ends on January 15.

With this deal, federal spending for fiscal year 2014 will be $1.012 trillion; for 2015, it’ll be $1.014 trillion. “The agreement replaces $63 billion in sequester cuts with a combination of other savings, and includes an additional $22.5 billion in deficit reduction,” reports USA TodayIt still needs to go to a vote, but it’s a first step.

Conservative groups are already grumbling that the budget exceeds the $967 billion that they would prefer. But the Republicans would be best advised to come to the table with compromise on their minds. In the eyes of the voting public, they were overwhelmingly to blame for the government shutdown. And the media has been crowing about this do-nothing Congress, which has been declared the least productive in the history of this country, passing only 55 bills. The GOP doesn’t need the stain of once again being unable to come to an agreement over something this important.

Perhaps with that in mind Rep. John Boehner, the Speaker of the House from Ohio is telling conservative opposition groups to chill out. “They’re using our members and they’re using the American people for their own goals. This is ridiculous,” he said. Thumbs up for once!

And besides, Democrats didn’t get everything they want either. Not included in the final budget is an extension of unemployment benefits. Despite the positive jobs report released last week, there are still 1.3 million Americans out of work for the long term who depend on those benefits to make ends meet. We just recently had 23,000 people applying for 600 jobs at Walmart, so there’s a desperate population eager to take on work… any kind of work.

Politically, The New York Times says putting the budget issue to rest will give Republicans the opportunity to continue bashing the healthcare law. Moreover, you have a number of Congresspeople, including Rep. Ryan, who have to keep an eye on their prospective presidential runs in 2016.

Business Insider uses charts and graphs to illustrate why this extension is needed. USAT doubts that anything will get passed before the current extension expires, however.

Military spending will be increasing by $63 billion, which will be offset in part by higher airline fees.

Cory Booker Sworn Into The Senate, Rep. Mel Watt Rejected As Head Of Federal Housing Finance Agency

November 1st, 2013 - By Tonya Garcia
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Both images via Twitter

Both images via Twitter

We have a new Senator — Cory Booker — who officially resigned from his position as mayor of Newark on October 31 at 12 a.m. He’s the first African American Senator from the state of New Jersey and only the fourth African American to be popularly elected to sit on the body. He was elected on October 16 to fill the vacancy left from Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who died during the summer.

He joins Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina as the only other African American in the Senate now. Sen. Scott was appointed to his position after Jim DeMint stepped down.

On just his second day on the job as the nation’s most junior Senator, Booker met with President Obama and Sen. Harry Reid, the tough talking rep from Nevada who serves as the majority leader.

NBC News notes that Sen. Booker had a number of successes, bringing corporate headquarters, a new Whole Foods (in 2016), and other developments to the city, which had suffered in previous years from neglect and mismanagement. However, some felt downtown Newark benefited most while other areas didn’t see much change. Issues like unemployment and poverty are big problems also. While big problems persist, Newark is certainly on a much better path because of Sen. Booker’s efforts.

In other political news, Senate Republicans blocked the nomination of Rep. Mel Watt (D-NC) to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency. In this role, he would’ve been the regulator for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, influencing the mortgage market. The vote was more or less along party lines, with Democrats and two Republicans — Richard Burr, also of North Carolina, and Rob Portman of Ohio — voting with the Dems in favor of the nomination.

VP Joe Biden called the vote a “disappointment.” And Alan Jenkins, Executive Director of The Opportunity Agenda, a national organization that works to expand opportunity in housing and homeownership, said the following in a statement: “This partisan rejection of Mel Watt, a highly qualified candidate, is a thumb in the eye of millions of American homeowners and a blow to our economic recovery. America deserves better.”

Sen. Reid has taken steps to bring the nomination back to the floor at some point.

Republicans, according to Bloomberg, have an issue with Watts’ qualifications and his support of Fannie and Freddie. They support Edward J. Demarco, who has been sitting in on an interim basis since 2009 (!). He has taken it upon himself to shrink the two financial companies. All the while, legislators on both sides of the aisle have proposed shutting down both Fannie and Freddie and Republicans have made moves to change government involvement in mortgages.

Rep. Watt, 68, has been in Congress for 20 years and was the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus at one point.

Default Averted! Senate Leaders Say They’ve Reached An Agreement To Reopen The Government

October 16th, 2013 - By Tonya Garcia
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The President and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid discussing the government shutdown a few days ago. Getty Images

Waiting until the very last possible minute, Senate leaders on both sides of the aisle say they’ve reached an agreement that would end the government shutdown and avoid a debt default that threatened the US credit rating and the world economy. Under the deal, the government will be funded through January 15 and the debt ceiling will be raised through February 7. There’s also a deadline set for mid-December in which the House and Senate should look at something more long term so perhaps we don’t have to go through this madness all… over… again every few months.

Sens. Harry Reid (D-NV) and Mitch McConnell (R-KY) made the announcement this afternoon and Senate Republicans who had initiated the crisis with their attempts to defund Obamacare now say they won’t block the vote. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who staged a fake filibuster for 21-plus hours last month, says he won’t vote for it, though he won’t keep it from getting through. A vote is expected this afternoon.

In the end, the Republicans got next to nothing for all the chaos they caused. The only concession made was the continuance of the budget cuts of 2011, which even Sen. McConnell said “is far less than many of us hoped for, quite frankly, but far better than what some had fought.”

The chaos in the House continued straight through yesterday afternoon, with House Speaker John Boehner making suggestions that were tossed out, and resolution seeming just as much out of reach as before.

While that was going on Fitch, the credit rating agency, put the US on notice that our credit rating was in jeopardy because of the default threat and the Treasury Department said that it only had $35 billion to pay for the government’s debts. Not a lot when you think of all the government has to pay for. That was expected to only last another few days. Investors and Wall Street leaders also admonished the government for taking the country and the global economy to the brink of disaster. The government has been partially shut down for 16 days.

“The compromise we reached will provide our economy with the stability it desperately needs,” said Sen. Harry Reid today as the deal was announced.

While Congress was battling it out, Republicans were taking a good deal of the blame for the crisis in the eyes of the American people. And rightfully so. Poll after poll over the past week has shown disapproval of Congress as a whole, but many people place responsibility for this crisis at the feet of Republicans, who then tried to blame President Obama for holding fast and not giving them everything they wanted. Criticism even came from moderate Republicans who recognized that holding the country hostage while they sought to get “something out of this” although they didn’t “even know what that even is” was a mistake.

“Let’s just say sometimes learning what can’t be accomplished is an important long term thing, and hopefully for some of the members they’ve learned it’s impossible to defund mandatory programs by shutting down the federal government,” North Carolina’s Republican Senator Richard Burr said.

We’re technically still waiting for Congress to take those final votes, but the picture is more reassuring today than it was this morning.

“Nobody who is sent here to Washington by the American people can call themselves a winner if the American people have paid a price for what’s happened,” said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney in today’s briefing.

[via The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal]

The Government Shutdown Will Hit Black Federal Workers Hardest

October 2nd, 2013 - By Ann Brown
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The government shutdown will most immediately affect the livelihoods of thousands of federal workers, but it will be black federal workers who will be hit the hardest.

“The shutdown will impact in different ways some of the nation’s more than 2 million civilian workers, about a fifth of whom experts estimate to be people of color,” reports TheGrio.

African Americans represent approximately half of the minorities who would be out of work, according to various data.

President Barack Obama says he knows how dire this situation is. In a speech yesterday, he warned that as “America’s largest employer,” a federal government that’s ceased operations could cause widespread distress.

“Office buildings would close. Paychecks would be delayed. Vital services that seniors and veterans, women and children, businesses and our economy depend on would be hamstrung,” the President said. “Business owners would see delays… in permits, ” he added. “Veterans who’ve sacrificed for their country will find their support centers unstaffed. Tourists will find every one of America’s national parks and monuments, from Yosemite to the Smithsonian to the Statue of Liberty, immediately closed.”

Hundreds of thousands of public servants who remain on the job will do so without pay, Obama said. And several hundred thousand more are indefinitely furloughed without pay.

Federal employees aren’t the only ones upset.

In Washington, D.C. , the Mayor Vincent C. Gray called everyone back to work. He declared all District government operations as “essential” during the federal shutdown and sent a letter to the head of the federal Office of Management and Budget explaining his decision. But some lawyers called  this action illegal.

“I have determined that everything the District government does – protecting the health, safety and welfare of our residents and visitors – is essential,” said Gray in a radio address.

“It is ridiculous that a city of 632,000 people – a city where we have balanced our budget for 18 consecutive years and have a rainy-day fund of well over a billion dollars – cannot spend its residents’ own local tax dollars to provide them the services they’ve paid for without Congressional approval,” the Mayor said.

Some government services will continue. Seniors on Social Security receive their checks, mail delivery will continue and government operations related to national security or public safety will go on.

We have some tips that will hopefully be of some service to the workers who have been furloughed. Check them out here.

Well, That Happened. The Government Shutdown: What It Means To You.

October 1st, 2013 - By Tonya Garcia
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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) surrounded by other Democratic legislators during a press conference about the government shutdown. Getty Images

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) surrounded by other Democratic legislators during a press conference about the government shutdown. Getty Images

As of midnight last night, the U.S. government shut down for the first time in 17 years. Republicans, conservative ones in particular, are still doing their level best to overturn Obamacare (which has been the law for years, went to the Supreme Court and was deemed legal, and begins rolling out today). So the Republican-led House keeps sending proposals to the Democratic-led Senate with items that would defund or delay Obamacare and the Senate keeps putting the kibosh on it. Now there’s no money to run the government. Imagine if you ran your personal finances with a roommate or partner this way. You’re just not going to pay for anything until you can decide who does which chores around the house. You’d have no utilities, no cable, and pretty soon, you’d be packing your bags.

The first people to feel the effects are government workers, who showed up today to clear off their desks and make preparations for some unexpected time off. About 800,000 workers will be furloughed. Others, like Border Patrol officers and prison guards are going to work, but they might not be paid. FWIW, the Pay Our Military Act was signed yesterday to make sure that the troops are paid. Speaker of the House John Boehner tweeted a picture of himself signing the law, which drew some — ahem — interesting responses. President Obama also released a video just after midnight last night as Commander in Chief with details for the nation’s military. Troops will remain on duty.

Others on a forced vacation include workers at museums and national monuments like the Statue of Liberty and the Smithsonian. Those landmarks will be closed due to the shutdown. The Environmental Protection Agency is closing down. Many civil cases at the Justice Department will come to a halt. Congressional hearings, including one on the Washington Navy Yard shooting that took place last month, will not happen. The Washington Post has a detailed graphic about how various government agencies and workers will be impacted. In other words, workers will not be going to work and people won’t be getting paid. Others who receive benefits from the government will see delays. Moreover, businesses that depend on spending from those checks and sales around the landmarks that are shut will also be feeling the pressure. That means belt-tightening at a time when the economy needs consumers to be spending and when Americans need money to pay for higher costs and any residual effects of The Great Recession. President Obama talked about the broader impact in comments he made yesterday afternoon as well.

One group that doesn’t seem too phased are investors. Wall Street actually opened with stocks inching slightly higher and other markets remaining largely mute in their response. Their bigger fears are just around the bend — the upcoming fight over raising the debt ceiling, which has to happen by October 17.

Also unfazed — Congress, who will continue to get paid because their salaries are protected by the Constitution.

President Obama noted in a statement delivered from the White House yesterday evening, “Keeping the people’s government open is not a concession to me. Keeping vital services running and hundreds of thousands of Americans on the job is not something you ‘give’ to the other side. It’s our basic responsibility.” Republicans who remember the shutdown that happened 17 years ago are saying this will go on for at least a week. All of this happened despite the fact that many voters polled didn’t want the Obamacare fight to lead to a government shutdown.

According to Politico, many Republicans are hoping to keep the shutdown short, get a concession or two from Obama and the Dems, and then reap the rewards from constituents who think this fight over Obamacare is a good thing. But, there’s a good chance that won’t happen.

[via Washington Post]

He Wanted To Get His Point Across: Sen. Ted Cruz Talked For More Than 21 Hours, Voted With The Majority

September 25th, 2013 - By Tonya Garcia
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In case you hadn’t heard (the folks in the Senate certainly got an earful), Sen. Ted Cruz, conservative GOP favorite and a seeming candidate for the next Presidential election, talked for more than 21 hours to get his point across — he doesn’t like Obamacare.

Sen. Cruz took to the floor of the Senate on Tuesday afternoon at 2:42 and didn’t stop until noon today. His goal, he said, what to “speak in support of defunding Obamacare until I am no longer able to stand.” During that time, he read Green Eggs & Ham to his daughters, impersonated Darth Vader, gave his own suggestions for a new healthcare plan (he’d like to see “portable” plans that will follow a person even if they change jobs) and gave a history lesson, talking about the Founding Fathers. He also used the time to air dirty laundry and criticize those that publicly disagreed with his plan for a marathon speech. In fact, there are some within Cruz’s own party, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell who believe that, while the new healthcare law should be defunded, this is a misguided tactic to achieve that.

As he spoke, there were many who agreed with Cruz’s tactics, tweeting that it was a stand that needed to be taken. William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, called it a stunt, but an “effective one.” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called it a “big waste of time.”

Ultimately, the whole thing was largely for show. The Senate voted 100-to-0 to consider a bill that will both fund the government and defund Obamacare. According to the New York Daily News, “Democrats will eliminate the defunding proposal and force the GOP-led House to decide if it will shut the government.” That shutdown would happen next Tuesday. The new healthcare law will also be rolling out on October 1. The bill must be agreed upon and signed by President Obama by Tuesday to avoid the shutdown. A government shutdown in 1995 cost the GOP greatly, so certainly it’s something they’re going to want to avoid.

The “filibuster” (quotes because there’s some question about whether this is what Cruz’s stunt actually was) was the fourth longest in the history of Congress. The longest was by Strom Thurmond (D-S.C.) in 1957, which clocked in at 24 hours and 18 minutes. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, it’s time for Congress to get down to the business of deciding on this budget and doing some real work.

It should be noted that a  CNBC All-America Economic survey of 800 people conducted last week found that 44 percent of people oppose a defunding of the Affordable Care Act. Thirty-eight percent support it. “Only 19 percent of respondents said they would back a shutdown if it means defunding Obamacare,” the National Journal says.

The Senate Finally Does Something! New Bill Will Roll Back Student Loan Interest Rates

July 25th, 2013 - By Tonya Garcia
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The Senate has passed a bill that will roll back student interest rates to 3.9 percent. The rates had doubled from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent on July 1 after Congress was unable to reach an agreement. The new figures will affect subsidized Stafford loans with undergrads getting the 3.9 percent rate, graduate students getting a 5.4 percent rate, and parents receiving a 6.4 percent rate.

Before we get too happy, we have to remember that everything Congress does these days comes with some bit of news that’ll make us suck our teeth. In this case, liberals didn’t like the fact that the rates are tied to the U.S. Treasury 10-year borrowing rate rather than being a fixed percentage set by Congress. So there’s a much higher cap on these interest rates, according to USA Today: “8.25% for undergraduates, 9.5% for graduates, and 10.5% for parents.” The bill passed 81-18 and is expected to make it through the House of Representatives.

“An effort by Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., to put tighter interest rates caps on student loans was… rejected.,” the paper adds.

A statement from the White House expressed their support along with that of the President. House Speaker and spray tan lover John Boehner took a moment on his blog to talk about the similarities between what passed and what the GOP supported. A bipartisan agreement takes from the ideas of both sides of the discussion, so he shouldn’t be quite so far up on that high horse, but OK fine. As long as new borrowers get some relief.

HBCUs still have a fight on their hands as changes to student loan standards have greatly impacted their schools and their students. Changes in eligibility that affect students who need more financial help have the schools seeking legal recourse to turn things around.

A study published last month shows that among adults, “19.6 percent have student loans and 57 percent are concerned about repayment.” Moreover, many people with student loan debt don’t even have a degree, indicating that they’re not finishing their degree studies.

“Hispanics and African Americans are about twice as likely to carry student-loan debt: 34 percent of blacks and 28 percent of Hispanics have it, compared with 16 percent of whites and 19 percent Asians,” adds CBS MoneyWatch.