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Marco Rubio Admits 'I Was Wrong' About Occupational Licensing. Now, He's Pushing Reforms.

Rubio and Elizabeth Warren are teaming up to stop states from restricting occupational licenses for people with unpaid student loan debt.

It is rare to see a politician admit that he or she was wrong. That's why Sen. Marco Rubio's (R-Fla.) tweet on Thursday morning was so refreshing.

Just as refreshing is the bipartisan effort to fix a particularly galling aspect of America's occupational licensing problem. Rubio is teaming up with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on a bill that would prohibit states from suspending professional and occupational licenses if a license-holder defaults on their student loan payments. Warren, in a statement, called those rules "wrong and counterproductive."

"It makes no sense to revoke a professional license from someone who is trying to pay their student loans," says Rubio. "Our bill would fix this 'catch-22' and ensure that borrowers are able to continue working to pay off their loans."

If it becomes law, the Protecting Job Opportunities for Borrowers (Protecting JOBs) Act would prevent states from suspending, revoking or denying state professional licenses solely because borrowers are behind on their federal student loan payments. The federal government has the authority to order states to do that, Rubio says, because of the Higher Education Act, a federal law that, among other things, require states to offer in-state tuition rates to members of the military. The bill also gives borrowers a legal recourse if states refuse to comply.

An analysis by The New York Times last year found that at least 20 states had rules on the books allowing licensing agencies to deny or revoke professional and occupational licenses from individuals who defaulted on student loan debt. The Times found more than 8,700 cases in which individuals had lost their licenses, though the actual number is likely much higher due to the decentralized and often obfuscated nature of licensing boards.

Sure, it's important to incentivize the repayment of student loans, but that hardly seems to justify a punishment that literally means denying someone the right to do their job legally. And with licenses required for more than 25 percent of all jobs in America, falling behind on student loan payments can close off a wide range of potential careers.

There is no logic to such laws. For individuals who are already struggling to repay debts, their situation will only get worse if they cannot continue working.

"These policies don't make sense, because they make it even harder for people to put food on the table and get out of debt," said Warren.

Though licensing is largely a state issue, the federal government is partially to blame for these state-level policies. In 1990, the Department of Education recommended that states "deny professional licenses to defaulters until they take steps to repayment." That year defaulted student loans totaled about $7.8 billion. Last year the figure topped $32 billion.

As Rubio admitted in his tweet Thursday morning, he voted for a law allowing Florida occupational licensing boards to suspend licenses for individuals who defaulted on student loans. But he has a personal reason for changing his opinion. Rubio graduated from law school in 1996, and revealed in a 2012 speech that it took him more than 15 years to pay off more than $150,000 in student loan debt that he'd accumulated while pursuing his degrees.

For many others—particularly low- and middle-income professions where occupational licensing can already be a major hurdle to gainful employment—that sort of debt could make it impossible to work in a licensed profession.

Sticking to a policy to avoid looking like you've flip-flopped is a major impediment to fixing bad policy in particular. Indeed, doing so is really an act of cowardice. More politicians should be willing to show the kind of bravery that Rubio put on display Thursday.

Photo Credit: Alex Edelman/dpa/picture-alliance/Newscom

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  • Eidde||

    Another "Dr. Frankenstein repudiates his own monster" story.

    Why didn't he heed the warnings and not create the monster in the first place?

  • Eidde||

    PS - The monster called the scientist his father, which would suggest that maybe the monster took his father's name...so much for those annoying people who say "Frankenstein was the scientist, not the monster." Why not both?

  • This Machine Chips Fascists||

    "How can they pay back if they can't work?"

    IKR? It's like you weren't concerned about the consequences of your actions, being more concerned about posturing for FL voters.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    A politician? Seriously? Why do you have such a low opinion of your betters?

  • This Machine Chips Fascists||

    Get back to me when Rubio has been treated for his eternal war boner.

  • Leo Kovalensky II||

    Get back to me when they go after the insanity that is occupational licensing in the first place.

  • Johnimo||

    Amen, Leo! Doctors already have to get a medical degree, right? So why then does some State think they need to get a medical license? Everyone knows attorneys are already the lowest form of life on the Earth; they don't need a license, they need a soul. If you have to drive through Pet Sematary to get to your Vet, maybe you should operate on little kitty by yourself.

  • Citizen X||

    I hope he was rocking out to Social Distortion when he composed that tweet.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    I learned me a new word.

    I must say I never had the pleasure of this particular affliction.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    And yes, I learned about this word here.

  • some guy||

    Being right for the wrong reasons is considerably better than being wrong for the wrong reasons. He still has room to improve though.

  • Mickey Rat||

    Glad you have come around. Why did you think this was a sensible idea in the first place?

  • Unicorn Abattoir||

    Warren, in a statement, called those rules "wrong and counterproductive."

    Especially considering Warren's desire to regulate and license absolutely every occupation there is.

  • perlchpr||

    "These policies don't make sense, because they make it even harder for people to put food on the table and get out of debt," said Warren.

    Can you seriously not just rely on the inherent logic of the argument? Does it have to involve virtue signalling about how nice you are?

    "These policies don't make sense, because they make it even harder for the debtor to pay their debt." Full stop. That's all you need to say about it.

  • damikesc||

    No offense, but if he really had no idea that the idea was stupid when he voted for it, I am not sure he is smart enough to be President. I mean, he got rolled by Schumer in the Gang of 8 and then voted for really stupid licensing laws in FL. It's great he learns, but if a dude had to learn to not stick a fork in an outlet while taking a bath, then he might just be a bit hopeless.

  • flyfishnevada||

    You say that as if he's outside the norm when it comes to making stupid, ill informed decisions. Heck, he learns and that puts him far ahead of most of his 534 colleagues. When it comes to politicians, beggars can't be choosers.

  • Johnimo||

    flyfishnevada, you make a valid point.

  • jerbigge||

    A better solution is to end government licensing and replace it with certification instead.

  • Johnimo||

    A better solution is end government.

    Lesson: Quite while you're ahead.

  • Johnimo||

    "Quit" .... no "e"

  • Robot Centaur||

    I signed up for real estate agent license classes today. FML

  • flyfishnevada||

    Send them to school to get a degree that gets them a license they don't actually need to do the work and then take said license away when they can't pay back the loan for the education they never needed in the first place. What's the problem. Sounds like it's working as designed.

  • Tionico||

    How is it that STATES can take action relating to FEDERAL student loans? Isn't that a whole lot like Arizona trying to enforce immigration law and getting whacked for it? I hadn't heard this was a "thing", but it never should have been. Feds have all manner of ways of getting their claws on money when someone has some and they want it. Taking ction to render a worker unable to work takes away much of his liberty to even live. How ya gonna pay the rent when your license is stolen?

  • Eman||

    Couldn't we make student loan debt react to bankruptcy like any other debt as a first step and see how that goes? I'll preemptively mention something about the last vowel in a certain word, but Elizabeth warren's endorsement makes me pretty suspicious.

  • CWEvans||

    Tenth Amendment

  • CWEvans||

    bah! That was supposed to read "[cough]Tenth Amendment[/cough]."

  • jjjjj||

    I like these kind of laws on the books. It's a great way to get people thinking about occupational licensing laws in general. Licensing's "stated goal" is to ensure a minimum level of competence and safety. But by having the laws where you can have your license stripped for a factor having nothing to do with competence and safety. It exposes the laws as a protectionism scheme.

  • Johnimo||

    Right you are! The real purpose of occupational licensing is to keep additional occupants out of the occupation.

  • gphx||

    Makes about as much sense as sending someone to prison for smoking marijuana so when they get out they're a felon and the only job they can get is selling drugs.

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