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Where’s the GOP outrage over farm debt assistance?

Why, the author asks, is it unfair to forgive debt for student loans but not farm borrowers? (Photo illustration by Iowa Capital Dispatch using via Canva)

I try to stay atop the day’s news. But I must have dozed off last week — because I missed the response from Iowa Republican leaders to the Biden administration’s announcement of $1.3 billion in debt relief to 36,000 farmers who have fallen behind on their farm loan payments.

In making the announcement, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said, “Through no fault of their own, our nation’s farmers and ranchers have faced incredibly tough circumstances over the last few years. The funding included in today’s announcement helps keep our farmers farming and provides a fresh start for producers in challenging positions.”

I am not here to question the wisdom of the federal assistance. But the silence from Gov. Kim Reynolds and U.S. Sens. Charles Grassley and Joni Ernst is markedly different from their criticism after President Biden announced in August that the government would forgive up to $10,000 in federal student loans for most borrowers.

If you have forgotten, here’s how Iowa’s Republican leaders reacted to the student loan announcement:

Reynolds explained it this way: “Biden didn’t cancel student loan debt. He sent the bill to you.” She also tweeted, “The expensive, unlawful Biden mass debt cancellation plan is an insult to working people and must be stopped.”

Grassley said by forgiving student loans, Biden “continues to pour gasoline on the fires of inflation.”

And Ernst said bluntly: “President Biden is rewarding the wealthy and penalizing working families.”

[Editor’s note: North Carolina GOP politicians — including Senator Thom Tills and Rep. Virginia Foxx — have uttered similar condemnations of student loan debt relief, but remained silent on aid to struggling farmers.]

Rep. Virginia Foxx

Sen. Thom Tillis

Under the federal farm relief announced last week, each farmer/borrower who is delinquent on a direct government loan or on a farm loan guaranteed by the federal government will receive automatic payments to get them caught up on their loans.

Each farmer with a direct federal loan will receive about $52,000, the Associated Press reported. Each farmer with a guaranteed loan will receive about $172,000.

Vilsack also announced 21,000 borrowers whose farm loans have been foreclosed on but who still owe money will share $200 million in federal assistance. That is an average of $101,000 each, the USDA said.

Don’t forget, the student loan forgiveness tops out at $10,000 for most borrowers and at $20,000 for low-income borrowers.

There is no indication the student loan forgiveness will be repeated in the coming years. But the USDA said the farmer assistance announced last week is just the first round of payments to help struggling farmers.

Another difference worth mentioning: The student loan forgiveness is available only for borrowers whose income is less than $125,000 (or, no more than $250,000 for couples). But there is no income ceiling for the USDA’s farm loan repayment assistance.

During the recent debate between Reynolds and Democratic challenger Deidre DeJear, the governor was asked about her opposition to student loan forgiveness.

“It does nothing but encourage bad borrowing practices,” Reynolds replied. “And if you’re the truck driver or machinist or a nurse or a person that decided not to seek a college education, why should you be responsible in paying somebody else’s off, especially when they often make more than you do? It’s not right. It’s not fair.”

Of course, those same observations could be made about the loans and loan payments for farmer/borrowers. But this time, Republicans are not in a mood to ask those questions. They saw the college borrowers as a good target for political potshots. They don’t see farmers that way.

Iowa needs nurses, accountants, teachers, physicians, social workers, and other college-educated workers who rely on student loans. Iowa also needs farmers — and many often need to rely on the federal government to provide or guarantee their farm operating loans.

A friend of mine challenged the governor to respond to the farm loan assistance in the same manner as she did to the student loan forgiveness. He posted on Facebook: “I expect you to be in court on Monday morning, filing suit against Joe Biden to stop this irresponsible and unjust transfer of wealth from hard-working taxpayers to whining farmers. The message to farmers should be this: If you don’t have enough money to farm, don’t farm. Don’t expect the taxpayers to bail you out.”

He was being melodramatic. But the contrast between the Republican reaction to the loan assistance for college borrowers and for farm borrowers is inescapable — and maddening, especially if you believe there should be consistency in what our political leaders stand for and do.

We need farmers. But we also need lots of professionals who are in short supply in many communities in Iowa.

If a farmer goes bankrupt, someone else will acquire that land and keep producing crops and livestock. But there is no guarantee a school district will be able to fill a teaching vacancy or the local clinic or hospital will be able to hire enough nurses.

This is where we need more leadership — and less political theatrics.

A footnote: Biden’s student loan forgiveness is being challenged in court. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett denied a Wisconsin group’s request last week to block the law from taking effect while the challenge is heard. Legal experts saw that as a sign she did not believe the legal issues were a close call.

A similar challenge by Iowa and a handful of states will be considered this week by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis. In both cases, the government says Biden acted under authority granted by Congress 20 years ago to make changes in the federal student loan program in response to national emergencies, such as the COVID pandemic.

Randy Evans is executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and a regular contributor to the Iowas Capital Dispatch, which first published this essay.

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Where’s the GOP outrage over farm debt assistance?