June 1, 2023 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

On student loans, McCarthy didn’t get what he said he got

Even so, it’s why some Democrats voted against lifting the debt ceiling.


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Now that the US House of Representatives has passed legislation that lifts the debt ceiling, we can expect to see an array of narratives emerging that rationalize votes for or against it. When it comes to progressive Democrats, one of those will almost certainly be this: It ends the current pause of student-loan repayments? I vote no.

That rationalization will be rooted not in what Joe Biden has said but in what the House speaker has said. “The pause is gone within 60 days of this being signed,” Kevin McCarthy told Fox after a meeting last weekend at the White House. “So that is another victory because that brings in $5 billion each month to the American public.”

There was never a principled reason to balk at raising the debt ceiling. (The House Republicans raised it for Donald Trump.) So McCarthy had to invent one – they said they were using the borrowing cap as a means of restraining federal expenditures. The three-year moratorium on student loan repayments was costing the government billions, McCarthy said. Ending the moratorium would cut costs. 

The House speaker is claiming credit for having ended, through debt-ceiling negotiations, something the Biden administration was already feeling pressure to end, separate and apart from debt-ceiling negotiations. In other words, McCarthy is saying he won. Joe Biden is saying yeah, Kev. Sure, you did. 

But even as he bragged about what he got, he knew he didn’t get it. 

The Biden administration had paused repayments eight times since the beginning of the pandemic. The Supreme Court is likely to block a separate plan to forgive sizable chunks of student-loan debt. Pressure to resume repayments comes not only from the opposing party but also the president’s party. When asked, the US secretary of education suggested during testimony that the question wasn’t whether there would be another pause but when repayments would begin anew. 

“We are committed to making sure that once [the court decides], that we are going to resume payments 60 days after. No later than June 30, we’re going to begin that process,” Miguel Cardona told a Senate panel.

McCarthy said repayments will begin 60 days after the debt-ceiling legislation is signed into law, but that’s not what the legislation says. It says what the Biden administration has been saying – that repayments will restart no later than 60 days after June 30, some time in early fall. 

McCarthy is claiming credit for having ended, through debt-ceiling negotiations, something the Biden administration was already feeling pressured to end, separate and apart from debt-ceiling negotiations. McCarthy is saying he won. Biden is saying yeah, Kev. Sure, you did. 

To be sure, the president surrendered the ability to continue pausing student loans as part of his deal with the House Republicans. This has some claiming that he gave up too much. But the likelihood of the Biden administration continuing to pause repayments was extremely low. 

Biden would probably prefer not to bring attention to the complete facts of the matter, because they make him look bad. (McCarthy might have done him a favor. Biden can say, somewhat truthfully, that it wasn’t his choice to end the moratorium. He can say McCarthy forced him to.) 

The same can’t be said of the House speaker. Though McCarthy didn’t really get what he bragged about getting, his bragging about it sailed across the spectrum to the ears of House progressives who wanted Biden to continue pausing repayments and who, in turn, decided that whatever’s good for the House Republicans must be bad for them. 

So ending the current pause on repayments has emerged as one of the reasonsreasons why some progressives voted against lifting the debt-ceiling. Other reasonsreasons, according to Salon, included provisions “that would slash food assistance, require approval of a gas pipeline and end the federal moratorium on student loan payments — all while maintaining hundreds of billions of dollars in Pentagon spending and low taxes for corporations and the wealthiest Americans.”

What’s the moral to be drawn here? I can’t say that I know.

What I do know, however, is that Kevin McCarthy didn’t get what he said he got. What I do know is that McCarthy seeming to get it became nearly the same as getting it. What I do know is that blurring the line between seeming to get and actually getting was enough for McCarthy’s adversaries to vote against what he didn’t really get.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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