Nothing like waiting until the last minute

After months of arguing, Congress on Friday did what was inevitable — particularly in an election year.

It passed a $100 billion transportation bill that also kept college students’ interest rates at 3.4 percent.

Had Congress not acted before today, a number of highway, mass transit and other transportation programs would have been derailed all across the country. And students would have looked at an average of $1,000 more on subsidized Stafford loans they took to pay for college because the interest rate would have doubled to 6.4 percent.

Neither would have been a popular occurrence with folks who very well could have expressed their frustrations in the voting booth this summer and in November.

The votes were lopsided in both chambers. The House passed the bill 373-52, while the Senate approved it by a 74-19 vote, showing that when months of wrangling between the political parties reaches a deadline in an election year, bipartisanship can rear its head for the gallant purposes of maintaining congressional jobs and party advantage. If there were such a thing as a Truth in Legislation Law, the bill would have been titled “Another Congressional Jobs Security Act.”

That’s not to say the legislation itself is bad, though it wouldn’t be a surprise to find a great deal of wasted spending tucked neatly into it. Certainly America’s transportation infrastructure needs all the improvement it can get. And keeping money cheaper for young Americans chasing a college education has plenty of benefits.

Not all college loan money, however, will have that premium rate. Unsubsidized Stafford loans will remain at 6.4 percent. Parents who take out Plus loans for their children pay an even higher percentage, 7.9 percent.

Keeping that rate low for the subsidized loans, which would save a student who borrowed the maximum $23,000 about $4,600 over the 10-year repayment period, wasn’t a point of contention between Democrats and Republicans. What they argued about was how to pay for the $6 billion it will cost the nation to give those estimated 7 million students a break on the interest rate. Republicans wanted spending cuts; Democrats wanted higher Medicaid and Social Security taxes on wealthier Americans or cuts to oil industry subsidies. Lawmakers finally settled on raising the premiums for federal pension insurance.

Still, it will get Washington politicians through the November elections. By the way, the college rate reduction in the bill is only good for one year. On June 30, 2013, we likely will have this same skirmish going on depending on (1) who’s occupying the White House and (2) which party’s in charge of the House and/or Senate.

The old saying that “the more things change the more they stay the same” isn’t much of a campaign slogan, but it would be an appropriate motto for Congress.