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Why are Key House Democrats Giving Betsy DeVos a Free Ride?

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testified before the House Education and Labor Committee five months ago. She sat down, cleared her throat, and proceded to dodge basic yes-or-no questions about everything from transgender rights to literacy programs to arming teachers for several hours. Through her evasiveness, and the many issues Democrats wanted to bring up, there was barely any discussion of the trillion dollar student loan crisis, a calamity chaining down a whole generation’s opportunity, and which is now larger than both credit card and auto loan debt. Over $1.4 trillion of the $1.5 trillion debt is part of the federal government’s student loan portfolio, which the Education Department oversees.

DeVos avoided questions about student loans in April. It’s now the end of September. Democrats have controlled the House of Representatives for nine months, almost as long as a standard school year. That one hearing in April is still the only time they’ve brought DeVos before the committee.

They haven’t issued subpoenas for testimony or documents from her team, let alone sued when stonewalled by Trump. The woman with the most direct power over the student loan crisis, and who has dizzying conflicts of interest with companies currently enjoying government contracts, is being mostly let off the hook by the Democratic party’s leadership.

This is not the position which a party who’s next presidential nominee might run on cancelling student loan debt wants to be in.

Absolutely nothing is preventing chairman Bobby Scott from dragging DeVos before the committee often enough to elicit real answers. There’s no shortage of individuals in the department to target for oversight — we at the Revolving Door Project made a whole list in June. Scott is simply dragging his feet on his congressional and moral obligation to scrutinize the DeVos Education Department. He seems content with marking up messaging bills that will never pass Mitch McConnell’s Senate instead of uncovering information and pressing key Trump appointees in ways that could actually impact our national discourse.

Scott wasn’t always like this. In April 2018, when Republicans still controlled the House, Scott told Education Week “Congress cannot perform its oversight responsibilities when the administration refuses to appear before authorizing committees…It is past time that Secretary DeVos appear before our Committee.” Yet now that Scott has the power to actually compel DeVos’ testimony, he is declining to do so.

To fill the void somewhat, Rep. Maxine Waters held a hearing this month focused on student loan servicing in the House Financial Services Committee, which she chairs. Democratic representatives took it as an opportunity to signal their strong support for student loan reform, and to question experts — including comedian Hasan Minhaj — about the interweaving policy and market-based causes of the crisis.

But Republicans rightly criticized part of the hearing’s premise. “We don’t have jurisdiction over the Department of Education where this [student lending] is primarily done,” Ranking Member Patrick McHenry said in his opening statement. That’s not a criticism of Waters; it’s a criticism of Scott. The Financial Services committee can only conduct oversight on narrow questions about lending, underwriting, and debt servicing. It cannot tackle the root causes of the crisis, or the most significant ways that Education Department policies permit profiteering from colleges and loan servicers.

We do have a vehicle to do that kind of oversight: the Education and Labor Committee. And ostensibly, an opponent of DeVos is in charge of it. So why isn’t he using the gavel sitting in front of him?

This problem is endemic in Democratic House leadership. Waters is the only House committee chair who’s conducted consistent, scrutinizing oversight of the Trump executive branch since taking the gavel in January. She’s questioned Consumer Financial Protection Bureau director Kathy Kraninger and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. She’s subpoenaed President Donald Trump’s financial records from nine different banks. And she’s leveraged hers and her committee colleagues’ celebrity status to attract public attention to these interrogations and fact-finding missions.

She is doing what she was elected to do. (That has actually caused her grief from her more Wall Street-aligned colleagues.) Most other committee chairs seems content to twiddle their thumbs and occasionally make up nicknames for the president, as his corruption sinks the country lower and lower. Yes, it is almost impossible to pass new legislation while Mitch McConnell controls the Senate. But news flash: the House has other powers too!

It should be so easy to challenge the DeVos Education Department over student lending. At the Waters hearing, Representative Jennifer Wexton highlighted Kathleen Smith, a former top DeVos aide, who declared student loan servicers off-limits to state regulators before immediately taking a lobbyist job at a major servicer. That’s one example of many showing how close these servicers are with their would-be top regulator. Polling even shows that student loan worries transcend party lines. There’s no reason for more consensus-oriented politicians to hold back here.

Yet Scott does little. This only reinforces young people’s apathy toward electoral politics, which a sensible Democratic party would do everything possible to counter, given how crucial the youth vote is to its electoral prospects. Scott and his fellow House chairs have no one to blame but themselves for this political malpractice. They tolerate corruption at theirs — and their party’s, and the country’s — peril.

This article originally appeared on the CEPR blog.

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