The First Amendment of the United States Constitution guaranteed the right of the people to petition the government. It reads:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
At Student Loan Planner®, we love to talk about student loan loopholes. Let’s talk about the Constituents Loophole, where the First Amendment gives you the right to complain to your elected officials about your grievances around existing student loan policy.
Student loans and government
The federal government’s role in the student loan industry has expanded over time, delegating its management to contracted student loan servicers. These servicers help administer the government’s growing student loan portfolio.
Today, the outstanding student loan debt in the U.S. is over $1.73 trillion, $1.56 trillion of which is the outstanding Federal Loan Portfolio. Approximately 42.9 million Americans with federal student loan debt each owe an average of $36,406 for their federal loans.
Several federal statutes, regulations, and contractual provisions affect how student loan servicers manage student loan debt for borrowers. States have also enacted legislation specifically targeted at student loan servicers to impose legal requirements above and beyond those imposed by federal law. The specifics of these laws vary from state to state.
What to do when you have issues with your servicer
Issues with your student loan situation (inaccurate payment count for PSLF, payments being appropriately applied to balances, getting your loans into good standing, etc.) will first need to be taken up with your servicer.
Step 1: Here’s a few resources or guides on common situations that you can resolve with your student loan servicer:
- How to Remove a Late Payment From Your Credit
- How to Remove Student Loans From Your Credit Report
- Getting Your Loans Out of Default
- 5 Steps to Fix Your PSLF Payment Count
- How to Prepare if Your Student Loan Servicer Changes
- How to Submit an Ombudsman Appeal
- Submit a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) Complaint
Step 2: If you receive no timely correspondence from your servicer despite being persistent with communication to resolve an issue, the next step is bringing in a congressional caseworker.
Every congressional office has at least one caseworker. The caseworker’s job is to help constituents communicate with federal agencies. Typically, this involves helping individuals with Social Security, Medicare and Veterans Affairs (VA) requests, but they can also assist with inquiries such as for student loans.
The best way to find your congressional caseworker is through your congressperson’s website. You can identify your congressperson by entering your zip code on the “Find Your Representative” page of the U.S. House of Representatives website.
On the contact page of your congressperson’s website, look for the wording “Help with Federal Agency.” Use this link to submit your initial request or find the contact page to determine their preferred method of contact.
How caseworkers can help
Caseworkers can’t give advice on behalf of federal agencies and they can’t fight your battle with a federal agency, similar to the Ombudsman group. What they can do, however, is perform “status checks.”
A status check means they’ll contact the agency (your student loan servicer) on your behalf and inquire why things are taking so long for you to get a response. Sometimes, caseworkers have direct contacts at federal agencies and can actually get some results.
Here’s an example of an initial request you can submit to your congressional caseworker:
“I’m working toward PSLF. FedLoan Servicing is not accurately tracking my payments or responding to my request for a more accurate count. I’m requesting your assistance to do a status check. Could you please have a member of your staff who handles casework contact me?”
After submitting your request, the caseworker will generally reach out to you. The caseworker might ask you to sign a privacy disclosure form and request a few more details.
When supplying the caseworker with additional details, follow the general guide below:
- Thank them for agreeing to assist you
- Give contact information beyond your email address
- Supply them with your student loan account numbers
- Explain the background of your situation
- State the actual request for the caseworker — for example, “Can you please request a status check with the U.S. Department of Education on our behalf?”
- Thank them for their help
After the caseworker makes inquiries, thanking them again goes a long way.
Step 3: If your situation is more extreme, or no resolution is found via your servicer, the Ombudsman Group, or with help from your congressional caseworker, then consider hiring a student loan lawyer. Student loan lawyers are there to help with situations that have escalated beyond inquiries.
Advocating for student loan policy change
Beyond issues with a student loan situation or servicer, you can advocate for overall change in student loan policy using your First Amendment right. There are many ways to petition the government, including actual petitions, protests, mailing a letter, or sending an email.
One of the most effective ways is picking up the phone and calling your congressional representatives. Today, it’s easier than ever to call your Congress members by phoning their offices directly. A staff assistant or intern will answer your call and field your message to your representative.
No matter how a message comes in — by phone, email, mail, fax — it’s recorded and entered into a software program known as a constituent-management system.
In an interview with The New Yorker, Isaiah Akin, the deputy legislative director for Oregon’s Senator Ron Wyden, said, “Everything is read, every call and voicemail is listened to, we don’t discriminate when it comes to phone versus email versus letter.”
How to communicate with Congress
First and foremost, make sure that you are communicating with your respective legislator’s district or state. You can find your House Representatives by typing in your zip code here: https://www.house.gov/representatives and your Senate Representatives by identifying your state here: https://www.senate.gov/states/GA/intro.htm
If you’re communicating with a representative outside of your district or state, it will not carry as much weight since they do not represent you specifically within Congress.
Other correspondences that tend to be disregarded include tweets, Facebook posts or other online app communications, online petitions, mass emails that originate from the websites of advocacy groups, phone calls that stick to scripts from advocacy organizations (especially if the caller seems ill-informed about the issue), and communications with obscenities.
Before communicating with your congressional representative, prepare. Know the issue(s) you wish to discuss and have a clear goal or action you want the legislator to take. Include compelling facts to convince them to take action.
A phone call is a practical communication strategy and the fastest. They can hold a lot of weight, too, if many constituents are calling at the same time about a similar issue because they take up more time by occupying staff, obstructing business as usual, and could attract media attention.
Call your Representatives’ office, identify yourself and ask for a Legislative Assistant. State your purpose and keep the message simple and concise. A good model to follow is: State the issue, support with facts and make your goal clear, such as asking the legislator’s support for a bill.
Avoid emotional arguments, personal attacks, threats of political influence or demands. Thank the staffer for taking your call and let them know how you will follow up.
There are two different switchboard phone numbers you can use to call a member of Congress for either the House or the Senate. You can simply request the name of the Member and the operator will patch you through.
- House Switchboard: (202) 225-3121
- Senate Switchboard: (202) 224-3121
Sample phone call flow
Identify yourself and explain your relationship with the senator or representative:
“Hi, my name is NAME, and I am calling as a constituent and PROFESSION/graduate student from ORGANIZATION, INSTITUTION, AND/OR UNIVERSITY.”
Explain why you are calling:
“It is very important to me…”
Establish why your issue is necessary and the perspective you offer as a professional or graduate student.
Ask your member of Congress to take action:
“I urge the SENATOR/REPRESENTATIVE to…”
Thank the staffer:
“Thanks for your time and attention today.”
Email or mail
All members of Congress maintain email addresses, websites, and mailing addresses to communicate with their constituents. Most congressional offices will respond to email and snail mail from constituents.
Your representative will first verify that you live within his or her Congressional district to determine whether it is appropriate to respond. Personalized, individualized messages receive the most attention.
Face-to-face meetings can be hugely impactful. One of the most productive forms of communication for influencing public policy is to visit a policymaker.
A successful visit with a policymaker includes the following:
- Purpose of the visit. Your knowledge and interest in current legislative initiatives that impact student loan borrowers will help to define the purpose of your visit. Make it a practice to monitor legislative developments that affect student loan borrowers and seek out additional information, if desired.
- Schedule appointments. When you plan to visit your state or national capital, schedule a meeting with your elected officials. You don’t need to know anyone in the office to schedule an appointment.
At least two weeks prior to the visit, send a one-page letter to the policymaker requesting a visit. Briefly explain the issue you wish to discuss and thank him/her for their past efforts on the same or related issues. Indicate a willingness to meet with the appropriate staff member.
This lets the policymaker know that you understand the many demands on their time. It also increases the probability that a meeting will occur with someone who is knowledgeable about the issue and eager to hear your point of view.
One week prior to the visit, telephone the office, obtain the name of the appointment secretary, confirm the appointment and with whom you will meet.
Never underestimate the value of meeting and establishing a relationship with the policymaker’s staff. Ask how much time is allowed for the visit. Prepare information that can be left with the individual at the conclusion of the meeting. Just prior to the visit, make any calls to reconfirm arrangements, if this seems prudent.
- Prepare an agenda. Develop a strategy to establish common ground for discussing the issue to be addressed. Prepare a statement that briefly and precisely presents the subject in about 10 to 15 minutes. Write down any important points to be made. Prepare questions in advance. Before concluding, summarize the main points and end with a clear statement of the action desired.
- Designate a spokesperson. If the appointment is for a small group, designate one person to speak and assign specific roles to each member of the group.
- Know the policymaker’s position. Arguments will be more effective if the stance of the policymaker is known. When he/she supports a position, facts or case studies to support the position will be appreciated. If the individual is undecided or opposed to a position, information that refutes that stance is valuable.
- Arrive promptly. If several people are part of the meeting, gather at a designated location before the appointed time and enter the office together. Promptness is essential.
- Provide fact sheets. Provide a brief written summary of the points to be made in the meeting, including the name, address, and telephone number of the person the policymaker may contact for additional information.
- Follow-up. After the visit, send brief letters to all persons involved with the meeting thanking them for the meeting, regardless of the stance they take on the issue.
While a fax message has not always been the favored means of communication, it’s still an option.
Recent student loan policy changes via the stimulus
Over the past year and a half, Congress passed three COVID-19 economic stimulus packages thus far: The CARES Act (passed in March 2020), the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 (passed in December 2020), and the American Rescue Plan (passed in March 2021).
The majority of the relief for student loan borrowers was included in the CARES Act. But new benefits have been added with each subsequent bill.
Here’s what’s included in the stimulus packages that could benefit current or future student loan borrowers:
- Suspension of all payments through January 31, 2022
- No interest will accrue until January 31, 2022
- The suspended payments count towards loan forgiveness programs, including PSLF and IDR forgiveness (PAYE, REPAYE, IBR)
- Taxes are eliminated on forgiven student loans through December 31, 2025
- Employers who contribute to their employees’ student loans receive a tax break up to $5,250 (through 2025)
- Borrowers in default will have their months of suspended payments count towards the nine months needed for loan rehabilitation
- No collection, wage garnishment, or seizure of tax refunds will happen (backdated to March 13, 2020)
- Slight increase in maximum Pell Grant
- Incarcerated persons can now receive Pell Grants
- Over $1.6 billion in institutional debt of HBCUs has been discharged
- Students may now continue to receive a subsidy on certain subsidized Stafford loans for undergrad for a longer period of time
- Employers may contribute up to $5,250 each towards their employees’ student loans, with this program set to expire in five years now instead of at the end of this year.
Here’s what’s NOT included in any of the stimulus packages.
- Canceling student loan debt
- Changing income-driven repayment programs
- Capping the amount students can borrow for undergraduate or graduate degrees
Advocating for what you think should be part of the next student loan reform is your civic duty. If you have opinions or grievances, let your representatives know!
Advocate for change, but have a game-plan for your loans now
The obligation to pay back student loans still exists, impending policy changes or not. If you need a plan to stay on track with your student loans today, that’s what we specialize in.