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Merger to Create Lobbying Force

As Congress re-evaluates subsidies the government gives to private banks to encourage student loans in the wake of scandals in the industry, the lending giant Sallie Mae couldn’t have more at stake.

The company is in the process of being purchased by two private equity firms as well as JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America. And the high price tag of the buyout — $25 billion — has only helped to galvanize reformers of the student lending industry.

But Sallie Mae is getting an enormous benefit from the combined power of its own roster of advocates and those who work both in-house and as outside lobbyists for JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America.

Representatives from the companies met Tuesday with officials from the House Education and Labor Committee and Financial Services Committees to discuss what the deal might mean for the industry and how the transaction will work. But they also are putting their heft behind an effort to scuttle a proposal that would call for student lending reforms to be included in a budget reconciliation bill, which lobbyists for the banks and Sallie Mae say would result in fast-tracking a complex process. Put simply, the lending companies want it to go through regular order.

“There are those who have serious questions about this very complicated legislation,” said a lobbyist on the side of private banks. “This legislation needs to be fully debated and considered.”

Sallie Mae did not respond to an interview request.

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), a proponent of reducing federal subsidies to banks in exchange for giving more aid directly to students, is in negotiations with Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) to include some of the reforms on the budget bill.

When it comes to that effort, Sallie Mae, Bank of America and JPMorgan are “speaking with one voice,” said a lobbyist for one of the companies. And the roster of lobbyists for those three companies is impressive.

Sallie Mae has a large stable of in-house lobbyists, including Tim Morrison and Robert Lavet. The company also recently inked a deal for outside help from a team at Patton Boggs that includes Nick Allard, Tom Boggs and former Sen. John Breaux (D-La.). Sallie Mae also retains lobbyists from Van Scoyoc Associates as well as former Rep. Ray McGrath (R-N.Y.) and former Rep. Vin Weber (R-Minn.).

The JPMorgan Chase in-house team includes Naomi Camper, a former banking and tax aide to Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), as well as outside help from Republican Charlie Black at BKSH & Associates and Democrat Paul Equale of Equale & Associates, who for years ran the Independent Insurance Agents of America.

Bank of America’s in-house team includes John Collingwood and Edward Hill, who participated in Tuesday’s meeting, which also included lobbyists Rob Griner of JPMorgan, general counsel Lavet and corporate development senior vice president Paul Mayer of Sallie Mae and Greg Baer, the deputy general counsel of Bank of America.

The Sallie Mae, JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America lobbyists say that if subsidies for private sector banks are cut dramatically, it will lead to more red tape and fewer dollars available for some students.

The system is not perfect and there are definitely abuses out there,” said a lobbyist for the private banks. “There are companies that cut corners. But there is a role for both private and direct federal lending.”

But some of the smaller student lending companies question whether the proposed cuts would actually harm big lenders such as Sallie and Bank of America, arguing that they, instead, would be most at risk if proposals like Kennedy’s go through

“If cuts of the magnitude that Sen. Kennedy have proposed actually happen, smaller organizations, including regional nonprofit entities, would have an awful lot of trouble staying in the program, jeopardizing earnings used to fund student aid opportunities for millions of students,” said Keith New, vice president of Communications for the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency. “The bigger ones like Sallie Mae would be in a better position to acquire competitors … reducing competition and making loans more expensive for students.”

The Sallie Mae investors, who hope to engineer a rare leveraged buyout of a financial services firm, have a walkaway clause built into the proposed deal, which means the banks could get out the deal if the subsidy is cut to a specific level.

“There’s a ton at risk for all of them,” said one student loan lobbyist, who does not represent any of the Sallie Mae investors or Sallie Mae itself. “A $25 billion deal impacts a lot of people.”

But lobbyists for the banks caution that, even if the deal goes through, JPMorgan and Bank of America will still compete with Sallie Mae in the marketplace. “The investors in the Sallie Mae deal, while they are of course cooperating, they are competitors,” said one lobbyist familiar with the deal.

Fritz Elmendorf, vice president of communications for the Consumer Bankers Association, said his group opposes the reconciliation effort, adding that the $25 billion Sallie Mae sale has created a perception that student loan companies and banks that make student loans are rolling in money — which doesn’t help their legislative cause on Capitol Hill. “The reality is that the deal doesn’t affect anything,” he said. “But the perception is that there’s a lot of money involved, and it’s generally perceived negatively on the Hill. That means that it’s harder to make our case, and the political support gets further eroded.”

Luke Swarthout, higher education advocate at US PIRG, who is on the other side of the issue, agreed that the recent scandals over student lending show that “we oversubsidize private lenders,” in turn leaving less money to help students.

“The Sallie Mae sale puts a lie to the argument that these lenders are financially strained,” Swarthout said. “Clearly major financial players see this industry as tremendously lucrative. ”