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Courtney, South Dakota Republican reunite for student loan forgiveness bill

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, has again collaborated with Rep. Dusty Johnson, a South Dakota Republican, to introduce education-related legislation. 

The Recognizing Military Service in Public Service Loan Forgiveness Act would allow American service members to count the full length of their service toward their student loan forgiveness. Courtney and Johnson also joined forces late in 2020 for a bill meant to protect federal Impact Aid education funding for communities, including Groton and Ledyard. 

In February 2019, Johnson traveled to Connecticut for the commissioning of the fast-attack submarine USS South Dakota, which was commissioned before a crowd of about 1,400 people. Johnson partly credits the trip for his relationship with Courtney.

“You really get to know members of Congress when you travel together,” Johnson said. “Joe was a gracious host and told me in advance of the trip, ‘This is generally how the program works, here’s what you have to do to make sure you’re prepared — it was a level of coaching and friendship and counsel I don’t know that Americans realize goes on as often as it does in Congress.”

The new public service loan forgiveness bill seeks to correct U.S. Department of Education practices in disbursing loan payments to active duty military service members. Johnson and Courtney’s working relationship, their time together on the Education and Labor Committee and their respective states’ military connection inspired the legislation.

“I’m optimistic that with Dusty representing a state with a large military presence, and my district with the largest military installation in New England, we’re going to figure out a way to get this across the finish line,” Courtney said.

Although they are currently eligible for public service loan forgiveness, existing rules prevent a number of active-duty service members who have deployed far away from their families from applying their full period of service toward forgiveness, meaning they have to tack on time to their service in order to qualify. 

“The problem is, inexplicably, active duty service does not always count toward that time period,” Johnson said.

A law was passed in 2007 setting up the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. It allows people who work in qualifying jobs — nurses, teachers, police, firefighters, for example — to enroll in income-driven repayment plans that will end in student loan forgiveness after 10 years of qualifying service. The new bill extends coverage to new groups of military members, which generally includes deployed active-duty members and National Guard members.

Courtney criticized the Department of Education, which discharges loan payments for the program, for not adhering to the spirit of the original law, and for not counting periods of loan deferment/forbearance during certain periods including deployments to the 10-year threshold.

“It’s really been a mess in terms of the way the department is handling the program, and as a result, as the GAO reported, the discharge rate for military service members is abysmally low,” Courtney said.

The Government Accountability Office found that more than 175,000 military members could qualify for the program. But between September 2017, when the first borrowers were eligible for loan forgiveness, and January 2020, of more than 5,000 military members and Department of Defense civilians who have applied, only 124 military and 163 Department of Defense personnel were approved for loan forgiveness under the PSLF program.

“As of January 2020, Department of Education data show that 287 DOD borrowers received loan forgiveness, while 5,180 DOD borrowers (about 94 percent) were denied,” the GAO wrote. “The most common reasons for the denials were not enough qualifying payments and missing information on the form. GAO previously reported in September 2019 an overall denial rate of 99 percent for all PSLF applications submitted by borrowers. More information from DOD could help potential applicants be aware of all eligibility requirements.”

Courtney and Johnson are hopeful that their bipartisanship, and a similar, bipartisan bill in the Senate, will encourage fellow lawmakers to support the measure. 

“Joe’s district is left-enough learning where he could throw all kinds of partisan bombs, and make it seem like every Republican who ever lived is a terrible human being, and still win his district,” Johnson said. “But he understands that while that would be OK for his political prospects, it’s not OK for his country. He chooses to conduct himself in a manner that is far more becoming of a member of the United States House.”

Courtney pointed out that student loans in general are an issue. President Joe Biden said during his campaign that he would look to cancel $10,000 worth of student loans per borrower when he took office. He has since backtracked from that statement. 

“The Secretary of Education during his confirmation hearing was pretty cautious about not stating a position because President Biden has actually been pretty outspoken about not supporting full discharge of, or $50,000 worth, of student loan debt,” Courtney said. “That’s a debate we’re going to have at some point on the committee.”


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