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Barack Obama's presidency

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Chalking Up a Win on Student Loans

By Jeff Cohen
March 28, 2010

Editor’s Note: Many progressives are angry at President Barack Obama’s concessions to corporate interests -- and even to Republicans -- on healthcare reform, essentially embracing Mitt Romney’s industry-friendly plan for Massachusetts and throwing away the sliver of a public option that the House had approved.

But, as Jeff Cohen notes in this guest essay, progressives won an important consolation prize when Congress tacked on to the healthcare "reconciliation" bill a direct student loan program, which cut bank subsidies out of the process:

We won!

When President Obama signs the healthcare reconciliation bill on Tuesday, we can crow about a robust public option – en route perhaps to a more inclusive, cost-effective single-payer system.

Soon, private profiteers (and subsidies to them) will be sidelined, and the government will save taxpayers billions by providing service directly to Americans in need.

I’m not hallucinating. We should savor this victory.

Unfortunately, it’s not a healthcare victory.  

Attached to the healthcare reconciliation bill is an unrelated college loan measure that goes in the opposite direction of healthcare reform. The loan measure sidelines private profiteers – the banks – and saves taxpayers money by making the government something of a “single-payer” which will soon be directly issuing most college loans in our country.

Direct lending by the government will cut out the middleman and save taxpayers, according to the Congressional Budget Office, $61 billion over 10 years – with $40 billion in savings being redirected to higher education in the form of more Pell grants, more aid to minority-serving colleges and more aid to lower-income graduates for paying off their student debt.

What a concept!

Instead of moving to subsidize a bulky private industry and its waste, profits and exorbitant executive pay (as the new health bill does by mandating that millions become new customers of corporate insurers), the college loan reform reduces bureaucracy, profit and streamlines the system.    

Yes, the right wing in Congress yelled “government takeover.”

And, yes, corporate lobbyists put up a fierce fight to stop this common-sense approach that ends years of wasteful subsidies to private banks.

But Democrats in Congress stood up to them – passing a measure in the public interest that can easily be explained and justified to the public.

It’s a far cry from the backroom deal-making Obama and top Democrats engaged in with lobbyists as healthcare reform got watered down, as even a weak public option got jettisoned and as private insurers and big pharma deepened their control over the system.  

I want to be happy at a time like this. I keep hearing everyone from liberals to mainstream media to right-wingers hailing this healthcare bill as a world-historical event.  Sort of like the first man walking on the Moon.

To the skeptic in me, it’s more like “one small step for humankind, one giant leap for private insurance firms.” 

But, today, it’s great to be able to crow about some good news – college loans – where Congress put the needs of the public and students and families above the needs of private interests.

Jeff Cohen is director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College and a former board member of Progressive Democrats of America .

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