This week President Obama announced a series of measures to make it easier for Americans to repay their student loans. I have no problem with the substance of Obama’s proposals, but I do object to the way they were packaged – as the “Student Aid Bill of Rights.”
Groan. This is only the latest in a series of bills, executive actions or manifestos that are couched as a “Bill of Rights.” A cursory search turned up these other BoRs:
· The Taxpayer Bill of Rights (courtesy of the Internal Revenue Service)
· The Parents Bill of Rights (legislation in Colorado to give parents more authority over medical decisions involving their kids)
· The Patient’s Bill of Rights (part of the Affordable Care Act)
· The Children’s Bill of Rights (which, alas, does not include the right to remain silent)
· The Pets Bill of Rights
· The Retail Workers’ Bill of Rights (approved by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors)
· The Actors Bill of Rights (including “You Are Entitled to Unquestioned Respect,” which will come as news to Mel Gibson)
Obviously these and other ersatz Bills of Rights are so described in an attempt to derive reflected glory from the real Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
Yet these “rights” are usually prosaic in the extreme. Take those guaranteed by Obama’s “Student Aid Bill of Rights”:
I. Every student deserves access to a quality, affordable education at a college that’s cutting costs and increasing learning.
II. Every student should be able to access the resources needed to pay for college.
III. Every borrower has the right to an affordable repayment plan.
IV. And every borrower has the right to quality customer service, reliable information and fair treatment, even if they struggle to repay their loans.
Article IV -- “Every borrower has the right to quality customer service” -- somehow lacks the poetry of the 4th Amendment in the real Bill of Rights: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.”
And that's really the problem with the proliferation of Bills of Rights. Often these “rights” are just pragmatic concessions that a legislative body or government agency has decided to provide in response to (often legitimate) political pressure. Dressing them up in the grandiose language of a “Bill of Rights” trivializes the concept of fundamental rights.
In fact, forcing people like me to recycle these inflated descriptions is a violation of the Political Commentators' Bill of Rights.
Follow Michael McGough on Twitter @MichaelMcGough3