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The Bank Lobbyist Behind Blanche Lincoln's "No" Vote on Reconciliation

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Score one for Wall Street. The student loan industry has convinced Senator Blanche Lincoln to vote against the healthcare reconciliation bill on the grounds that it contains "matters unrelated to healthcare" -- code for student loan reform, as David Dayen notes.

How did the student loan industry secure Lincoln's support? The same way they found other Senatorial defenders for their wasteful subsidies: the power of money, deployed through a combination of campaign contributions and strategic lobbyist hires.

In Lincoln's case, the simplest answer is Kelly Bingel. Bingel has been lobbying for the student loan industry since mid-2009, and is extremely close to Lincoln. She was the Senator's chief of staff from 2003 to 2005, and a longtime Lincoln aide before that. She has since joined Mehlman, Vogel, Castagnetti, a lobbying firm which has played a central role in the healthcare fight, lobbying for AHIP, PhRMA, and many other insurance and pharmaceutical companies.

A recent Roll Call article described Bingel as Lincoln's "alter ego,", and said that Bingel "has the ear of her former boss...first on the list of the Senator’s callbacks" according to one former colleague.

Student loan lobbyist Kelly Bingel and Sen Blanche Lincoln.

Their ties also extend beyond the professional sphere: Lincoln is the godmother of Bingel's son, according to this interview Bingel gave to her old sorority.

Ironically, considering the matter at hand, Senator and lobbyist were brought together by their college ties. Lincoln and Bingel were both members of the same sorority, Chi Omega (at different schools, however). Here is the story, as told to Chi Omega, of how Bingel and Lincoln's sorority sisterhood brought them together in DC:

While I was there, my mother, who was living in Arkansas, sent me a newspaper clipping about a young woman who had just been elected to Congress after defeating a 24-year incumbent. The young woman – Blanche Lambert - was a Chi Omega. I remember talking on the phone with my mom saying, “I’d love to meet her!” Fortunately, one of the congressmen I had covered as a newspaper reporter recommended me to Blanche. The first thing she said when she saw my resume was, “Oh, she’s a Chi Omega!” In short, Chi Omega opened the door for me to work with the woman who would be an amazingly positive influence in my life and who would become – a decade later – my son’s godmother.

All these ties have assured the student loan industry access to Sen. Lincoln, and likely swayed her to vote "no" on the reconciliation bill. Of course, the lenders paid Mehlman $150,000 last year for the privilege.

Before the release of Money-Changers in the Senate, the Campaign for America's Future report on the student loan influence game, Bingel was not yet linked to the student lending lobby. This is perhaps due to the fact that the industry used quite a daisy chain of corporate shells to hire her on to the cause.

Bingel works for Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti, which was hired by the Law Offices of John Dean on behalf of an obscure group called the Student Loan Coalition. Who is the Student Loan Coalition? It's not entirely clear, but here's a clue: Dean's other major client is the Consumer Bankers Association, whose members include Citigroup, Chase, Wells Fargo, and a number of other student lenders.

Meanwhile, Lincoln's current chief of staff, Elizabeth Hurley Burks, has strong ties to another student loan industry lobbyist: Jim Turner, formerly a Representative from Texas. Burks was Turner's chief of staff until 2005, and followed him to the lobbying firm Arnold & Porter before joining Lincoln's staff. Turner is now lobbying for Texas Guaranteed Student Loan Corp, a student loan guarantor that is an associate member of the Consumer Bankers Association.

Lincoln's ties to the student loan industry don't end there. Nebraska-based lender Nelnet only employs one lobbying firm, Avenue Solutions. There are three partners at Avenue, and one of them is Lincoln's former health policy adviser, Elizabeth Barnett. Avenue Solutions' three partners donated $10,300 to Lincoln in 2009, an average of over $3,000.

And on top of all that, Sallie Mae's PAC maxed out to Lincoln's primary account in 2009. One of Lincoln's top donors, DNC vice chair Lottie Shackelford, is a Sallie Mae lobbyist.

Arkansas isn't exactly a student loan origination boom state, so Lincoln can't say she's standing up for jobs (though that claim is a dubious one even for Senators from Sallie Mae's home state). Instead, she's talking about "transparency":

“This process that’s being used in reconciliation is a process that doesn’t have the transparency that I think Americans are crying out for,” Lincoln said, “and it doesn’t have the debate that shows the initiative of being thorough about how we do things.”

The line is reminiscent of the loan industry critique of the reconciliation bill: that student loan reform is "buried" in the healthcare bill and that the legislation was not given proper consideration by the Senate.

If Lincoln acted with even a modicum of transparency about how she arrived at her decision to oppose the reconciliation bill, she would disclose her recent contacts with Kelly Bingel and other industry lobbyists, as well as her recent campaign receipts from the industry. How illuminating it would be for a Senator to embrace transparency and say why they were taking such an unprincipled, impractical stand on behalf of moneyed interests, and against the interests of students in Arkansas.

This post originally appeared on OurFuture.org.

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