Washington briefs from Tribune news services
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Congress inaction means student loan interest rates double Monday

Washington • Student loan rates will double Monday — at least for a while — after a compromise to keep student loan interest rates low proved unwinnable before the July 1 deadline, senators said Thursday.

Sen. Tom Harkin, the chairman of the Senate education panel, said none of the proposals being circulated among lawmakers could win passage, and he urged lawmakers to extend the current rates for another year when they return from the July 4 recess. Harkin said his colleagues could retroactively restore the current rates after the holiday. "Let's put this off for a year," Harkin, D-Iowa, told reporters.

Interest rates on new subsidized Stafford loans are set to go from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent on Monday unless lawmakers take action. Congress' Joint Economic Committee estimates the increase will cost the average student $2,600.

"Neither party wants to see rates rise next week," said Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C.

But a one-year rate extension isn't an acceptable option, either, he said. "Last year we kicked the can down the road and passed a one-year extension for only a small group of students. ... Why would we make the same mistake again and just kick the can down the road another year?" said Burr, who was among a group of senators who worked on a competing proposal with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

Fracking critics unhappy with Obama climate speech

Pittsburgh • President Barack Obama's speech this week on climate change forcefully rejected some key arguments made by opponents of natural gas fracking, upsetting some environmental groups that otherwise back his climate goals.

Obama, in his address Tuesday calling for urgent action to address climate change, praised what he called "cleaner-burning natural gas" and its role in providing safe, cheap power that he said can also help reduce U.S. carbon dioxide emissions.

Regulators in many states with heavy new drilling activity say fracking, a colloquial term for hydraulic fracturing, is being done safely and is essentially similar to the hundreds of thousands of oil and gas wells that have been drilled all over the nation.

The drilling boom has reduced oil and gas imports and generated billions of dollars for companies and landowners. Many scientists and environmental groups also agree with Obama's main point: that while there are some negative effects from natural gas, burning coal is far worse for the environment and public health. There's no dispute that natural gas burns far cleaner than coal, but its main component, methane, is a potent heat-trapping gas.

Some environmental groups advocate a total rejection of all fossil fuels and an all-out effort to switch to renewables such as wind turbines and solar panels. They also say people living close to drilling operations have suffered from too much pollution.

"When it comes to natural gas, the president is taking the wrong path," Deb Nardone, the head of the Sierra Club's Beyond Natural Gas program, wrote in a blog post.

Social Security pushes approvalof disability claims, judges say

Washington • Driven to reduce a huge backlog of disability claims, Social Security is pushing judges to award benefits to people who may not deserve them, several current and former judges told Congress Thursday.

Larry Butler, an administrative law judge from Fort Myers, Fla., called the system "paying down the backlog."

A former Social Security judge, J.E. Sullivan, said, "The only thing that matters in the adjudication process is signing that final decision." Sullivan is now an administrative law judge for the Department of Transportation.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is investigating why many judges have high approval rates for claims already rejected twice by field offices or state agencies. Two current and two former judges spoke at a subcommittee hearing.

The number of people receiving Social Security disability benefits has increased by 44 percent over the past decade, pushing the trust fund that supports the program to the brink of insolvency.

Social Security officials say the primary reason for the increase is a surge in baby boomers who are more prone to disability as they age. Deputy Social Security Commissioner Glenn Sklar noted that the vast majority of disability claims are initially denied.

"I think the data kind of speaks for itself," Sklar told lawmakers.

To qualify for benefits, people are supposed to have disabilities that prevent them from working and are expected to last at least a year or result in death.

According to Social Security data, there were errors in 22 percent of the cases decided in 2011, Sklar said. He said some errors were procedural and did not necessarily result in incorrect decisions.

"The true wrong rate would be less than 10 percent," Sklar said.

Nearly 11 million disabled workers, spouses and children get Social Security disability benefits. That compares with 7.6 million a decade ago.