A Liberal Against Student Loans and Conservative for Campaign Finance Reform
By Aliza Astrow, Senior Political Analyst, Third Way and Jason Cabal Roe, Principal at Roe Strategic LLC.
To Democrats: Oppose Student Loans Because The Working-Class Needs Us Now More Than Ever
By Aliza Astrow – Senior Political Analyst, Third Way
The Democratic Party has long been considered the party of the working class. Republican policies favor the wealthy and powerful and the Democratic platform favors hardworking people who struggle to get ahead in our stratified and unequal society.
Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 scrambled these perceptions. By nixing some of the GOP’s least popular positions on the social safety net he was able to appeal to white working-class voters in a new way through racist and inflammatory means. Meanwhile, more affluent voters, particularly in the suburbs, were turned off by Trump’s brash style and these wine-track voters became core to the Democratic Party coalition. Today, the Democratic Party has shifted its focus away from its historical base and its new priorities are on display in the debate around forgiving student loan debt.
Student Loan Debt Distracts From a Bigger Problem
As the Democratic Party increasingly relies on college-educated voters and loses its working-class base, its priorities have shifted towards those favored by and benefiting highly-educated and upwardly mobile voters. Personally, I have no qualms with the Biden Administration’s choice to forgive some student loan debt. Given how the debate played out over the past two years, it is not clear that he had a choice in the matter. Politically, Biden’s action may serve as a base-motivator, although its long-term political effects will depend on other factors like inflation and whether the courts strike it down.
More frustrating, however, is the tenor of the debate around student loans itself. Forgiving student debt was framed as a way to benefit marginalized people, despite being highly regressive. Almost a third of all student debt is owed by the wealthiest 20% of households, and only 8% by the bottom 20%.
Absent from the debate was a discussion of types of debt held by the poorest and most underserved communities, like medical debt. 28% of households with a Black homeowner have medical debt, compared to 17% of households with a white non-Hispanic homeowner. 11% of households in poverty report high medical debt compared to just 3% of households with income above the poverty line.
The average balance for undergraduate loans is $30,000, while Kaiser Family Foundation data show that 44% of people with medical debt owe over $2,500. Despite this wide gap, 53% of medical debt holders say they feel they will never pay it off, compared to a third of Americans with student loans.
Polling indicates that two-thirds of Americans support forgiving medical debt, as opposed to a bare majority of 50% who support forgiving undergraduate student loan debt, and under 50% who support forgiving graduate student loan debt (Biden’s executive order applies to both undergraduate and graduate debt).
Our Working-Class Base Deserves Our Attention
Forgiving student loan debt is a reward to Democrats’ new base of middle and upper-middle class college graduates. And in the process of rewarding the Democrats’ base, some Americans who are in desperate need of help will benefit. But the disproportionate focus on forgiving student loan debt points to a broader problem in the Democratic Party: that we’ve abandoned our working-class base.
To Republicans: It’s Time to Revisit Our Campaign Finance Laws
By Jason Cabal Roe – Principal at Roe Strategic LLC
As a Republican political operative for more than 30 years, I’ve worked as a national media spokesman for Marco Rubio’s presidential run, deputy campaign manager during Mitt Romney’s first run, and for conservatives like Tom DeLay, James Rogan, and Tom Feeney. In those decades, the art of campaigning and the influence of money have changed politics dramatically.
An area of particular concern is contribution limits to candidates at a time when money flowing into non-candidate committees has reached unprecedented levels. I suggest that it is time to revisit our federal campaign laws and allow candidates for federal office to receive up to $25,000 from any individual or PAC in an election cycle. This reform will make Congress more functional and put candidates back in charge of their own campaigns while diminishing the influence of outside money.
The Problem with Citizens United
Passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, signed by President George W. Bush, followed by the Supreme Court’s decision in 2010 in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, has created a campaign finance environment that has made Congress dysfunctional while diminishing the voice of candidates in their own elections. This unfortunate scenario has increased the influence of special interest money, which now has a greater impact on Congress than ever before.
The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act attempted to diminish the influence of so-called “soft money,” primarily unlimited contributions of corporate funds, by prohibiting national party committees from receiving or spending this money in federal elections. This includes a prohibition on federal candidates or officeholders raising these dollars as well.
Eight years after the passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, the Supreme Court issued its 5-4 decision on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which reversed century-old campaign finance restrictions and enabled corporations and other outside groups to spend unlimited funds on elections, though not in coordination with the national party committees or federal candidates.
The result is unprecedented amounts of money being spent on candidates’ behalf, without their permission or influence, diminishing their voice in their own election. At the same time, congressional leaders have been relieved of a powerful tool that they previously used to govern their own caucuses. In the past, leaders could use earmarks of taxpayer dollars for district projects and promises of campaign support for re-election to corral their members into votes that might be politically difficult. With the banning of earmarks and soft money, they’ve lost their two most powerful negotiating tools.
Outside Money Creates Inside Problems
Citizens United sparked an explosion of outside groups, mostly ideological, who now spend unlimited amounts of money rewarding members of Congress for defying their leaders. Groups like the Club for Growth, previously a bundling group that raised hard dollars directly for candidates, evolved into an outside player spending millions in soft money. The Heritage Foundation launched Heritage Action for America, which developed a congressional scorecard to hold members accountable to their agenda, which often was in direct conflict with GOP congressional leaders, while dedicating millions in soft money to their preferred candidates.
Members became incentivized to defy party leaders and march to the tune of the outside groups, who were more reliable in spending the millions needed in an election. Candidates who historically raised and spent the majority of the money used to promote their candidacy saw their role in their own campaign diminished, as their campaigns were limited by personal donation limits (e.g. today totaling $5,800 per election cycle and PAC donation limits of $10,000 per cycle). As a result, candidates run against their own congressional leaders, trying to entice outside monies to be spent on their behalf. Today, targeted congressional campaigns feature millions of “independent expenditures” from Super PACs or 501(c)4 groups, dwarfing the amount they spend on themselves.
Change Is An Imperative To Success, Not A Suggestion
The political appetite for repealing the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act and the unlikely scenario of the Supreme Court reversing its opinion in Citizens United means a fix must come from within the current structure. That means raising the amount candidate committees can accept.
The justification is simple: if candidates can raise and spend more for their own campaigns, there is less need for the outside groups to spend on their behalf. Candidates regain control of their own narrative rather than being obligated to outside groups. Further, they gain independence from outside groups whose donations motivates members of Congress to defy their leaders, putting party leaders back in charge of their caucuses.
By allowing a federal candidate to accept $12,500 in the primary and an additional $12,500 in the general election, candidates will now be able to raise considerably more money. Some will argue that this allows money to further influence our elected officials, but public disclosure will allow the voters to decide if the lawmakers are compromised and punish them by voting them out of office.
Candidate committees have a further advantage as they receive what is called the Lowest Unit Rate (LUR) in television advertising. This lower rate for ads is not extended to non-candidate committees who routinely pay as much as 40% more for the same ad time. Thus, a candidate’s dollar goes much farther than an outside groups. This common sense reform can reduce the influence of special interest on Congress.
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