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OPINION | EDITORIAL: Government operations

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Well, so much for the government taking over all student lending in the United States. Not that the latest news will quiet all arguments for a government takeover. But this week came more evidence that government work sometimes doesn’t.

The Government Accountability Office reported this week that the federal Education Department has mismanaged income-driven repayment plans. Many students–actually most students–who were eligible for some sort of debt forgiveness didn’t get it.

This comes from The Washington Post’s story on the matter:

“According to the [GAO], the Education Department failed to ensure payments were accurately tracked until a decade after the first income-driven plan was implemented in 1994. As a result, some borrowers with older loans are at high risk of spending more time in repayment than necessary. Even now, there is no uniform procedure to verify and correct errors in the oldest loan accounts, the report said.

“The department has never provided borrowers regular updates on their progress toward debt cancellation or readily available information about forgiveness requirements. Without that guidance, the GAO said, people who believed they were making progress may not have known that postponing payments for months through forbearance or most types of deferment don’t count.

“More than half of the 70,300 loans the government watchdog identified as potentially eligible for income-based forgiveness had at least seven years’ worth of nonqualifying months as of Sept. 1, 2020.”

Among the many problems: The Education Department uses an old filing system. Reports call it “antiquated.” And information is lost when loans switch from one servicer to another.

Do you think banks would have this kind of mess in their accounting of who owes what and how much and when? Of course not, because they have an incentive to collect. Also, they are regulated. Who’s regulating the Department of Education? Congress?

“Congress designed these programs and set these terms, and they are complicated and confusing to borrowers,” said a policy fellow at the Urban Institute. “If you’re going to have these kinds of programs, you need really good administrative tracking systems that neither the servicers nor the department has put effort into.”

Sometimes the universe–or at least the newspaper–gives hints into how things work, or don’t. The same day the news came that the Education Department can’t handle education loans, the FAA failed to notify the Capitol Police in Washington about a Golden Knights parachute drop at the Washington Nationals ballgame, which caused a panic.

And to put too fine a point on it, Russia now says it has surpassed the world on hypersonic weapons. True or not (and the Pentagon doesn’t seem worried), how can Russia be even close on this kind of stuff, given how much money the United States outspends that country on military hardware?

Americans have a healthy skepticism on government operations, and have since before there was a United States. That skepticism gets healthier all the time, and grows.

Because it is well-fed.