Q: Is it true that children of members of Congress do not have to pay back student loans they receive?
A: This question has garnered a lot of attention over the last two months by fact-checkers, ever since the claim went viral on Facebook.
And, according to all available evidence, it is patently false.
An anonymous Facebook user from Florida dubbed “Actof Courage” first posted in January the claim that the families of members of Congress are exempt from student loan repayment, according to the Huffington Post, which tackled the issue later that month. The Facebook post was shared more than a quarter-million times.
Huffington Post wasn’t the first institution to scrutinize the claim. Politifact gave the conspiracy theory a “pants on fire” rating in 2011.
Eugene Kiely, a researcher at Annenberg Public Policy Center, traced the genesis of the false claim that members of Congress and their families have a special student loan forgiveness program to a Fox News discussion between the network’s political contributor Dick Morris and host Sean Hannity.
Morris told Hannity he “heard from his wife” that Congress spent $25 million in 2010 paying off the student loans of representatives and their families.
U.S. Rep. Bill Owens’ spokesman Jon Boughtin called the claim “bad information.”
There are student loan repayment programs available to congressional staff members and to other federal employees.
Such repayment programs are widespread in the federal government and are seen as a way to recruit and maintain talent. Federal agencies from the U.S. military to the Department of State offer such programs, although federal agencies are not required make the programs available.
Congress’ loan repayment program, codified in 2003, caps a Senate staffer’s repayment benefit at $500 per month and $40,000 total. That amount is in addition to their regular pay.
Repayments for federal employees are capped, in general, at $10,000 annually and $60,000 in total. Congress’ code specifically states that senators and representatives are not eligible for the benefit and makes no mention of their families, whatsoever.
In 2009, according to a report to Congress by the Federal Office of Personnel Management director, 36 federal agencies spent $61.8 million repaying the loans of more than 8,400 government employees. The average repayment benefit was $7,317 per employee that year.