With the debate over impeachment raging, everyone from Nancy Pelosi to a wide swath of freshman Democrats is making a distinction between Congress working on oversight of the Trump administration, and Congress focusing on so-called kitchen table issues — things that make a real difference to people’s everyday lives. Don’t let one eat up precious time that could be spent on the other, so the argument goes.
But this distinction is an illusion, one that Democrats need to abandon. And if they’re looking for a place where the Trump administration’s corruption and malpractice directly harms large numbers of Americans — something that merges oversight and the kitchen table — they should start with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
Under DeVos, a comically unqualified billionaire heir who embodies the ways that money can buy political power, the Education Department has launched a full-on assault on educators, students, and student loan borrowers. And the attack has been implemented by a handpicked team of former lobbyists who previously worked for some of the country’s most predatory education profiteers.
It’s a perfect storm of bad politics directly making life worse for Americans. Student debt is an incredibly significant issue for families across the country — indeed, many people literally lack their own kitchen table, and have given up on the possibility of homeownership entirely, because of the terrible burden of college loans. Kitchen table discussions of student debt tend to be particularly anguished when people are talking about debt racked up by attending a for-profit college.
Under President Obama, the Department of Education became increasingly aggressive in fighting to address these concerns. That effort has been reversed under DeVos, whose Department of Education has worked hand in hand with some of the country’s slimiest corporations, siding with them over young people struggling with loans they might never be able to repay.
Consider student loan servicing. As if the debt burden itself is not bad enough, the system for collecting loan payments, which has mostly been handed over to private companies, is wrought with abuse. The federal government has systematically failed to protect borrowers from such abuse, according to a scathing report released by the Education Department’s inspector general earlier this year. It detailed how the Federal Student Aid office neglected to properly document servicers’ failures, identify broad patterns of abuse, or meaningfully respond with the tools at their disposal. Several loan servicers were found to be providing inaccurate or inadequate information up to nearly 11% of the time.
With such widespread malpractice going unchecked, many states have chosen to take the fates of student loan borrowers into their own hands. State attorneys general (in addition to public advocacy groups) have sued these servicers on behalf of aggrieved borrowers, while state legislators have passed laws that bring them under the jurisdiction of their financial services regulators.
Amazingly, the Department of Education is seeking to quash those state efforts. It’s just one of many cases where the wishes of the student debt industry are being granted, while the needs of everyday Americans crushed by predatory debt are being disregarded. Could there be a better issue for Democrats to use their reclaimed House majority to highlight?
And yet the House Education and Labor Committee has barely begun to perform oversight of either the DeVos Education Department or the corporations that it appears to serve. DeVos has only had to testify once this year about the many issues under her purview, and the committee has yet to hear from a single other Education Department staffer in the more than four months since taking control.
Worst of all, not a single representative of the for-profit college or lending industries has testified.
Not confronting these egregious actors is a missed opportunity. Under DeVos, the Education Department has repeatedly sided with an industry that has had a crushing impact on millions of young Americans. Isn’t it worth asking why?
The failure to ask that question is both bad governance and political malpractice. Democrats speak about the need to lay out an affirmative policy vision for 2020, but spending your days talking about legislation that is doomed to die in the Senate is not a meaningful way to do it.
Instead, how about asking tough questions of one of the incompetent billionaires currently wreaking havoc on the country — and in the process, revealing the Democratic Party’s policy vision, which could be described as “the opposite of Betsy DeVos”?
If you want to know how to go about this, we suggest looking to Rep. Katie Porter, a freshman from California who has made a name for herself by tearing into finance executives and the Trump “regulators who love them.” Porter even recently tweeted about student loan servicer Navient, which posted record profits last year that were built on the backs of student borrowers.
The corruption of the Trump administration is a kitchen table issue. Once Democrats stop shying away from righteous and effective oversight, the public will see them as two sides of the same coin.
Jeff Hauser is the founder and executive director of the Revolving Door Project at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
Eleanor Eagan is a research assistant at the Revolving Door Project.