Controversy erupted last week when President Joe Biden’s White House announced plans to “forgive” substantial amounts of federal student loan debt, as critics argued that taxpayers shouldn’t be on the hook to repay debts voluntarily incurred by others.
Yet, taxpayers have already covered upwards of $50 million in student loan debt on behalf of congressional staffers over the past few years as part of a special program that has received very little public attention, the Washington Examiner reported.
Taxpayer assistance for Capitol Hill staffers
The program allows for House staffers to receive up to $80,000 in student loan debt repayment assistance, while Senate staffers can receive up to $40,000 in similar assistance from the Treasury Department, which, of course, derives its funding from taxpayer revenue.
The Examiner reported that there are monthly caps imposed on the repayment assistance — $833 per month for House staffers, $500 per month for Senate staffers — but given that there are a few thousand staffers on Capitol Hill, the vast majority of whom presumably are saddled with student loan debt, the total collective payouts have added up.
The outlet noted that, according to House records, at least $36.5 million in outstanding student loan debt for staffers has been paid off since 2020, while Senate records show that, since 2019, around $15 million worth of staffers’ debt has been repaid by taxpayers.
A few general limitations, plus a new added bonus for some
To be sure, there are a few limitations on the program, according to Politico, though individual members of Congress — who are not eligible for the assistance — have broad discretion on how the program works within their respective offices.
There is an income-level cap that excludes some of the most senior staffers with high salaries, but the vast majority of staffers are eligible, and there appears to be a monthly cap on how much assistance can be doled out per office, which has resulted in some offices prioritizing the assistance for entry-level staffers while other offices focus more on mid-level staffers who typically have graduate degrees and larger amounts of outstanding debt.
Further, staffers must commit to serve at least one full year in order to be fully eligible for the debt repayment assistance, though such assistance can be immediately disbursed, meaning a staffer can be forced to repay any assistance received, often in a large lump sum, if they exit the job prior to completing that first year.
It was further noted by Politico that some congressional staffers may actually be able to double up on taxpayer assistance received to cover their student loans in light of President Biden’s recently announced student loan debt forgiveness plans, albeit if their annual salary is less than $125,000.
Those staffers can not only participate in the special program for Capitol Hill employees but also receive up to $20,000 in loan debt forgiveness if they received a Pell Grant or up to $10,000 in forgiveness for non-Pell Grant federal student loan recipients.
Assistance earned through public service?
The Examiner also revealed that virtually all congressional offices — Democrat or Republican, House or Senate — participate in the program, despite what the respective senators or representatives atop those offices may say publicly in opposition to taxpayers footing the bill for the voluntarily-incurred debt of others.
For what it is worth, though, the argument can be made that these staffers, by way of their service to the nation via their work in Congress, have earned the offered taxpayer assistance, similar to another rather non-controversial debt relief program that assists individuals who work for at least 10 years cumulative in various public service sectors like local and state governments, as first responders and teachers, or in the military, among other things.