The latest chain e-mail we've received could be a new classic of the genre: Congress gets special perks nobody else does, a complacent media ignores the news (well, except for Fox News) and a request to forward it on to 20 people.
Here's the text:
"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 (items) below, just where will all of it stop?"
The e-mail then includes a list of other purported examples of Congress giving itself special treatment, such as paying members for life, exempting members from sexual harassment laws, and leaving themselves out of "the Healthcare Reform... In all of its forms." Not one of these claims is accurate.
The student loan claim, though, was a new one for us. We decided to see if it could possibly be true.
The e-mail says that "the staffers of Congress family members are exempt from having to pay back student loans." It's confusingly worded, but we're going to assume the person meant relatives of members of Congress and Congressional staffers.
We contacted the U.S. Department of Education, which informed us that these groups are not exempt from paying back student loans. They have to pay back their loans like everyone else.
"There are no provisions under Title IV (federal student aid programs) that provide loan forgiveness for Members of Congress or their families or staff (beyond what any other borrower would be eligible for)," said Jane Glickman, a spokesperson for the department, in an e-mail statement.
We wondered if the confusion arose because there are federal programs that help a small number of government workers pay back their student loans. It's called the Federal Student Loan Repayment Program, and it's meant to improve recruitment and retention. If a federal agency really wants to hire someone, it can offer to help pay the prospective employee's student loans. In exchange, the employee agrees to work for the agency for a minimum of three years. The payments are considered a form of income, and the worker pays taxes on them.
The program is fairly small: In 2010, the government repaid student loans for 8,454 employees. This compares with a total federal civilian workforce of about 2.7 million. According to government statistics, the program is used mostly by the U.S. Justice Department, the Defense Department, the State Department, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Government Accountability Office and the Department of Health and Human Services. Congressional staffers are eligible for a similar assistance. But members, their spouses and their dependent children are not eligible for the program, said Dan Weiser, a spokesman with the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer for the U.S. House of Representatives.
We should emphasize that there's an enormous difference between an individual competing for and receiving a job offer that includes student loan payments as a benefit and an across-the-board exemption for people in power. The chain e-mail seems to have no conception of that.
Still, it wasn't that long ago that Congress did exempt itself from laws that other people had to follow. In 1995, Congress passed the Congressional Accountability Act, which applied 13 laws to members that hadn't applied previously. Several of the laws involved discrimination in the workplace, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993.
Getting back to the question at hand, though: The chain e-mail said that members of Congress, their families and staff members do not have to repay student loans. This is ridiculously false. We rate it Pants on Fire.
U.S. Office of Personnel Management, Student Loan Repayment Program
U.S. Office of Personnel Management, Federal Student Loan Repayment Program Calendar Year 2009 Report to the Congress
E-mail interview with Jane Glickman of the U.S. Department of Education
E-mail interview with Dan Weiser of the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer for the U.S. House of Representatives.
Factcheck.org, Lawmaker loopholes, Jan. 29, 2010
Snopes, Loan arrangers, Jan. 3, 2011
Office of Compliance, the Congressional Accountability Act, 1995
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