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Hill Staffer Student Loan Perk Comes With Caveats

Working on Capitol Hill may help shoulder some of that mounting student loan debt. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Have student loans and want a $10,000 raise? The Student Loan Repayment Program, offered through both the House and Senate, can shoulder the student loan burden for up to $10,000 per staff member per year.  

The funds come from a central account administered by the House Chief Administrative Officer and the secretary of the Senate — not from the participating office or committee budget. So a member of Congress looking to give staffers a financial boost without dipping deeper into their Members’ Representational Allowance can easily take advantage. But there are several limits, both from the program and the offices, that restrict the amount of repayment, as well as which staffers can take advantage of the program. Interns are not eligible, nor are part-time or temporary workers, even those who are paid. Only full-time staffers are eligible.  

The loans eligible for repayment must be a federal student loan (private loans are not eligible), must be in the name of the employee (not their parents nor their spouse) and must be active with a current balance. Loans in deferment or default are not eligible.  

Other eligibility requirements are murkier and vary among offices. Staffers must agree to stay in their current offices for a year. If an office agrees, the paperwork must be signed and submitted to the Office of Payroll and Benefits. At any time, the employing office can decide to cancel the benefit, for any reason.  

Not every enrolled staffer would be able to hit the $833 monthly maximum ($10,000 annually). The amount varies widely: Some offices give employees a set amount, others used a sliding scale commensurate with income or tenure.  

Two former staffers who worked for the same senator received widely varying amounts, for instance. One received $100 a month, the other $500.  

Elsewhere, Greg White, a former legislative assistant for ex-Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, R-Maine, received $300 a month toward his student loans, identical to what the rest of his co-workers received, a policy which was relayed to him by his office manager on his first day. “It was a tremendous help, though, considering what your salary is right out of college and the daunting task of paying off your loans,” he said.  

Student loans have become commonplace for those seeking a four-year degree, with costs skyrocketing in the past three decades.  

But not everyone with student loans benefits from the student-loan repayment program. “Double-duty” staffers, those who attend graduate school while working on Capitol Hill , are not eligible for the loan repayment program, because eligible loans must be in repayment status, which is achieved when the student graduates or drops out.  

Bilal Malik, who served as a district aide for former Rep. Timothy H. Bishop, D-N.Y., was frustrated when he was denied loan repayment after he started attending law school part-time at Touro Law School in New York.  

Even though he worked full time, he was ineligible for the program while taking classes concurrently. “I would have had to graduate or drop out of school to be in the ‘repayment status,’ which would defeat the purpose,” he said.  

Malik ended up with $150,000 in student loans. Had he been enrolled in the program, he estimates he could have nearly $40,000 of that repaid.  

Some education experts say the program is too narrow and should be distributed as extra compensation, not just for those with a particular type of loan.  

Jason Delisle, a former Hill staffer and current director of the federal education budget project at New America, believes when the program was created in 2002, Congress viewed student loans as a sort of proxy for family income. “That might have made a little more sense in the early 2000s, but that is certainly not the case today,” Delisle said. “Since the early '90s, everyone, regardless of family income, can get a student loan.”  

For chiefs of staff, participating made sense. “It is such a great retention tool,” said Chris McCannell, a former chief of staff to two Democratic members. “That being said, nothing would surprise me if some offices didn't participate for some reason. As you know, you are dealing with 435 small businesses, each with their own thoughts and priorities.”  

There are varied reasons staffers don't participate. Some offices may not have the infrastructure to inform staffers of the benefit. One former aide, who declined to be named, heard about the program from co-workers after two months on the job.  

Offices with several staffers in the program can mean fewer dollars to share: The limit per office is 3.5 percent of the office MRA, approximately $42,000 annually per House member office (MRA calculations differ in the Senate).  

And even "free money" has its drawbacks. The student loan repayment is a taxable benefit, so expect to see monthly withholdings adjusted or be prepared for a tax bill come on April 15.  

Want more information on the Student Loan Repayment Program? Interested staffers can contact House of Representatives Office of Payroll and Benefits at (202) 225-1435 or the Senate Office of Payroll and Benefits at (202) 224-1095. The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.