Q: Is it true that members of Congress, their staffers and their family members do not have to pay back their student loans?
A: Not true. Some congressional employees are eligible to have up to $60,000 of student loans repaid after several years — just like other federal workers. But that’s not the case for members of Congress or their families.
My sister just sent me a chain e-mail that is trying to make a case for a 28th amendment to the Constitution stating that Congress shall make no law that members of Congress are exempt from obeying themselves. The e-mail uses the following example, and I’d like to know if it’s true:
Monday on Fox news they learned that the staffers of Congress family members are exempt from having to pay back student loans. This will get national attention if other news networks will broadcast it. When you add this to the below, just where will all of it stop?
We have received dozens of e-mails asking us if members of Congress and their family members or staffers are exempt from repaying their student loans. Many of those questions include the viral e-mail above or make reference to it or Fox News.
Some of the different questions we have received:
- Are members of Congress exempt from repaying student loans?
- Are members’ families exempt from having to pay back student loans?
- Are children of members of Congress exempted from repaying their student loans?
- Do congressional staffers have to pay back their student loans?
The answers are: no, no, no and yes — although some full-time congressional staffers participate in a student loan repayment program that helps pay back a portion of student loans. No more than $60,000 in the House and $40,000 in the Senate can be forgiven and only if the employee stays on the job for several years.
The confusion appears to stem from remarks Fox News political contributor Dick Morris made Aug. 23, 2010, (a Monday) on "The Sean Hannity Show." Morris misrepresented the student loan repayment program, and then his comment was further distorted by the viral e-mail and those who passed it along as fact.
Morris: Do you know — my wife Eileen just told me yesterday that staff in the House of Representatives and in the Senate do not pay student loans back? The government pays it for them?
Hannity: I didn’t know that.
Morris: The House of Representatives last year spent $25 million paying the salary, student loans of their staffers.
It is wrong to say congressional staffers "do not pay student loans back." There are student loan repayment programs that may be offered to eligible House and Senate staffers, but those programs have annual and lifetime caps. It’s possible that some congressional staffers will not have to repay their student loans, but that depends on how much they owe and how long they remain on staff. It is also worth pointing out that a similar program exists for executive branch employees, so congressional staffers aren’t the only ones receiving this benefit. All of the programs were created to help recruit and retain qualified employees.
We don’t take any position on the merits of the programs. But it’s simply not true that they exempt anyone from repaying their student loans.
Student Loan Repayment Program for Federal Employees
The student loan repayment program has been in effect for executive branch employees since 2001. It was established after the National Commission on the Public Service found that "the federal government had serious problems in recruiting and retaining a quality workforce," according to a report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.
On its website, the Office of Personnel Management says federal agencies are not required to offer this benefit to their employees. But those that do can pay up to $10,000 per year per employee. The total payments are capped at $60,000 per employee and paid directly to the lender. Loans eligible for repayment include PLUS Loans, which are federal loans parents take out to help pay for their child or children’s education expenses. (To be clear: federal employees who are parents can get help with their PLUS Loans, but a PLUS Loan taken out by an employee’s parent is not eligible.) Eligible employees must sign a contract agreeing to remain in their federal job for at least three years — or reimburse the government "all benefits received." Political appointees are not eligible for the loan repayment program.
In 2009, “36 federal agencies provided 8,454 employees with a total of more than $61.8 million in student loan repayment benefits,” according to OPM’s August 2010 report to Congress. That represented a 23 percent increase in the number of employees receiving loan repayment benefits from 2008 and a 20 percent increase in the amount spent on the program. The average payment was $7,317.
Congressional Staffers, But Not Members or Their Families
The congressional programs were created soon after the one for federal employees took effect. They were started for the same reason: to recruit and retain highly qualified employees. The 2002 CRS report said that "some members of both the Senate and House" were concerned about "high turnover and ‘brain drain’ in their personal and committee offices." Unlike the program for federal employees, the House and Senate programs require a service agreement of at least one year — compared with the three-year minimum requirement for federal employees.
The House student loan repayment program was established by law in 2003, and specifically exempts House members.
Title 2, Chapter 4, Section 60c-6: The Chief Administrative Officer shall establish a program under which an employing office of the House of Representatives may agree to repay (by direct payment on behalf of the employee) any student loan previously taken out by an employee of the office. For purposes of this section, Member of the House of Representatives (including a Delegate or Resident Commissioner to the Congress) shall not be considered to be an employee of the House of Representatives.
Dan Weiser, a spokesman for the House chief administrative officer, confirmed that House members and their families are not eligible for student loan repayment. "The loan must be in the employee’s name," he wrote to us in an e-mail. (However, PLUS Loans taken out by congressional employees are eligible for repayment under both the House and Senate programs. So, congressional staffers can get financial assistance in repaying loans they took out for their children’s education expenses — same as executive branch employees.)
In congressional testimony last year, former Chief Administrative Officer Daniel Beard said that more than 3,000 House employees participated in the program in 2009. The cost was about $12 million in 2009. Beard also told Congress that the House increased "both the annual and lifetime caps for the Student Loan Repayment Program. The House’s student loan program now parallels the executive Branch program with an annual cap of $10,000 in benefits and a lifetime cap of $60,000." The caps had been $6,000 and $40,000, respectively.
It’s important to note that the laws establishing the House and Senate programs set minimum requirements, but the congressional office can establish additional criteria. For example, a member’s office can cap the payments at less than $10,000 per year, impose a waiting period before the employee is eligible for the program, or require the employee to meet certain performance standards in order to maintain eligibility.
The Senate student loan repayment program, which was authorized by the fiscal year 2002 legislative branch appropriations bill, was started "for recruitment and retention purposes" in mid-March 2002, according to the 2002 CRS report. The law, as recorded in the Congressional Record, also says the purpose of the program is to permit Senate offices to "recruit or retain highly qualified personnel." So, clearly the Senate program is for Senate employees — not senators and their families.
The law states that payments are limited to $500 per month per Senate employee up to $40,000 in total. Those limits were in place for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2010, and will remain in place for this year, according to reports that accompanied the annual spending bills for the legislative branch in fiscal years 2010 and 2011. The Wall Street Journal reported that the Senate spent $4.7 million on its student repayment program in 2009.
We don’t know if the Senate, like the House, plans to raise its annual and lifetime limits — which is still possible since Congress has yet to pass a permanent budget for the current fiscal year. There isn’t any information on the program on the website of the secretary of the Senate, which by law is responsible for the student loan repayment program. We called the secretary’s office for details on the program and were told to talk to Vanessa Johnson, the student loan program administrator. We left messages for Johnson on Jan. 4, 5 and 6, but she did not return our calls. We also have outstanding calls to the Senate Rules and Administration Committee and the Senate Committee on Appropriations. We’ll be happy to update this item, if any of those Senate offices get back to us.
Coming Soon: ‘Public Service Loan Forgiveness’
One last thing: Morris didn’t mention this on Hannity’s show, but the Department of Education will begin to provide forgiveness on direct federal student loans for employees who have worked for 10 years in “public service” jobs — including federal, state and local governments — as long as those employees made 120 consecutive payments on those loans over a 10-year period. The Public Service Loan Forgiveness program was created by the College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007, and applies only to payments made on direct federal loans after Oct. 1, 2007. That means the earliest that federal employees can benefit from the program is Oct. 1, 2017.
Does that include congressional employees? Yes, it does, says Nikki Harris, who helps administer the program at the Department of Education. And congressional employees can participate even if they have already benefited from the existing student repayment programs, Harris said. But members of Congress are specifically exempted from this benefit. The department’s regulations say: “Government employee means an individual who is employed by a local, State, Federal, or Tribal government, but does not include a member of the U.S. Congress.”
Bottom line: Members of Congress enjoy a lot of perks, as documented by everyone from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to CRS to Fox News. But student loan repayment is not one of them. And the blanket statement that congressional staffers "do not pay student loans back" is simply not true.
— Eugene Kiely
Sean Hannity Show. Transcript, via LexisNexis. 23 Aug 2010.
Congressional Research Service. "Student Loan Repayment Program for Federal Employees." 6 Jun 2002.
U.S. Office of Personnel Management. "Student Loan Repayment Program." Undated, accessed 4 Jan 2011.
U.S. Office of Personnel Management. "Federal Student Loan Repayment Program Calendar Year 2009. Report to the Congress." Aug 2010.
U.S. Code. "Title 2, Chapter 4, Sec. 60c-6. Student loan repayment program for House employees." U.S. House of Representatives. 1 Feb 2010. Accessed 5 Jan 2011.
"CAO Dan Beard Delivers Testimony Before the Committee on House Administration." Press release. Office of the Chief Administrative Officer. 28 Apr 2010.
U.S. Code. "Title 2, Chapter 4, Sec. 60c-5. Student loan repayment program for Senate employees." Government Printing Office. Accessed 4 Jan 2011.
Legislative Branch Appropriations Act of 2002. Pub. L. 107-68. 12 Nov 2001.
U.S. Congressional Record. 23 Jul 2001: 8072.
U.S. Department of Education. "Federal Perkins Loan Program, Federal Family Education Loan Program, and William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program; Final Rule." Federal Register. 23 Oct 2008.
U.S. Department of Education. "Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF)." 16 Feb 2010. Accessed 5 Jan 2011.
College Cost Reduction and Access Act. Pub. L. 110-84. 27 Sep 2007.
Williamson, Elizabeth. "Scrutiny Grows as U.S. Pays Staffers’ Student Loans." Wall Street Journal. 25 Jun 2009.
Peterson, Carol, spokeswoman, Office of the Chief Administrative Officer. Interviews with FactCheck.org 3 and 6 Jan 2011.
Harris, Nikki, U.S. Department of Education. Interview with FactCheck.org 5 Jan 2011.
Weiser, Dan, spokesman, Office of the Chief Administrative Officer. E-mail sent to FactCheck.org 6 Jan 2011.