If you’ve been following the health care reform debate closely over the past few weeks, you may have noticed that the elongated process has fostered some strange bedfellows – student loans and reconciliation.

Now, as the proposed legislative action appears to draw to a close, you may have also paid enough attention to the mainstream press to sort of understand why reconciliation is being used to push through health care reform. You may agree or disagree with the proposed reforms, and you may agree or disagree with the use of reconciliation, but you probably see why President Obama and congressional Democratic leaders have chosen this particular route to passage. In short, it’s the only route to passage.

But you still may have a nagging question in the back of your mind: what in the world do student loans have to do with health care reform?

The answer lies within that mysterious process of reconciliation, where it seems all legislative roads must lead. According to the Senate parliamentarian (who right now may be the most powerful person in Washington), there is an immovable threshold that health care reform must cross in order for reconciliation to be utilized: $1 billion in deficit savings from both the Senate Finance Committee, and the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee over the next 10 years.

As reported in POLITICO, “With health care alone, the HELP Committee would not be able to show that the items within its jurisdiction save at least $1 billion.”

Therefore, the “savings” from student loan reform are necessary to push health care reform over this arbitrary threshold. I put “savings” in quotes and call it an arbitrary threshold because I fail to be convinced that student loan reform will result in savings at all for the federal government.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), who supports a combining of the two measures, phrased it deliciously when explaining why. The student loan reform package, he told POLITICO, “gives more buoyancy” to the overall bill.

Somehow, the image I see from “buoyancy” doesn’t connote savings to me. Instead, it signals a marriage of convenience: those who may not be totally sold on health care reform can say “but in the end I had to vote for college students and their ability to pay for college.” Or, the mirror image might be true. A skeptic on student loan reform (and there are many) might be heard to say this weekend: “We can no longer let people in this country go without health insurance.”
The bottom line is that many members of Congress, for strong philosophical reasons, either support or oppose both health care and student loan reform. They are not affected by this parliamentary maneuver because they would have voted the same way anyway.

However, there are enough members of Congress who are torn about what to do on health care reform, or student loan reform, or both, and reconciliation provides them some political cover to try to better explain how they voted to their constituents. It’s murky enough to allow them to have it both ways, to have their legislative cake and eat it too.

The core of student loan reform would be to end the subsidies given to private lenders who distribute student-loan money and instead require all colleges to use the Education Department’s own direct-lending system. That may – or may not – be a cure for the ills of higher education, but it is certainly a short-term Rx for health care reform.

What do you think about all this legislative maneuvering? Share your views on Hoverings: A Blog for Current and Future College Parents, located on the home page of www.collegeparents.org. Thank you for your continuing interest in College Parents of America.