It's a multi-million dollar perk doled out to thousands of congressional staff and federal workers. Their student loan debts are being paid for with your tax dollars. The benefit is supposed to help recruit the best and brightest to government jobs, but at what cost?
FOX 5 analyzed congressional spending reports and culled through the numbers.
If you look at the books, there's money spent on postage, travel, office supplies and other things you might expect from Congress, and then there are hundreds of pages of student loans.
"The federal government should not be in the business of paying off student loans," said Tom Schatz, President of Citizens Against Government Waste, a government watchdog group.
It's officially known as the student loan repayment program. Your tax dollars pay out up to $10,000 a year for individual house staff and up to $6,000 for individual Senate staff. It's billed as an incentive to lure top college grads into public service, rather than K Street or Wall Street.
"In general, congressional staff get anywhere from 20 percent to 50 percent less pay than they would get if they were in the private sector, people with comparable skills and education," said Bradford Fitch, President and CEO of the non-partisan Congressional Management Foundation.
Payments started going out in 2002 and the amount has grown substantially. Today, it's a costly perk.
FOX 5 analyzed the most recent House Expenditure Reports for the past year. Payments for student loans added up to $14 million. That's all taxpayer dollars. The report doesn't list staffers by names, only which loan providers got paid and how much.
The Senate Expenditure report doesn't even do that. It lists the annual $6 million for the program, most of it paid, but nothing else.
Supporters believe that kind of money talks.
"Let's ask ourselves: 'Do we want the best employees to work in the private sector for a K Street lobbyist or do we want them working on Capitol Hill?" Fitch asked.
College students deep in debt believe the taxpayer-funded perk is a good deal and an incentive to work in the federal government.
"You're asking someone who has a lot of loans to pay, so obviously I like it," said Ally Hizel, a college student at George Washington University.
She has more than $25,000 in student loan debt and expects to have even more from graduate school.
Congress isn't the only one giving this perk. Federal agencies do it too. The latest report from the Office of Personnel Management shows federal agencies in 2011 paid more than $71 million in student loan payments out of Uncle Sam's coffers.
Yet, not everyone gets the perk. It's considered discretionary, which means it's up to federal agencies and Congress members who qualifies and gets the benefit. Surveys show both Democrats and Republicans use it, but GOP House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan's blueprint to cut spending introduced earlier this year wants the program axed.
"People don't come to Capitol Hill to get student loans reimbursed. They come to work on Capitol Hill in a very competitive environment in order to advance their careers," Schatz said. "People will still come to work for the federal government and Congress if this is eliminated."
Among federal agencies, the Justice, Defense and State Departments make up the lion's share of federal student loan repayments. The average yearly amount per individual federal worker that received the benefit is $7,000. Based on estimates from the House spending reports, it's slightly lower for Congressional staff at $6,000 per person who gets it.
"Anytime you use retention tools or recruitment tools like this, it increase the likelihood that you're going to keep good people longer, and in the long run, that's a benefit to the taxpayer and to the constituent," Fitch said.
At George Washington University, one of the most expensive in the nation, law student Roberta Roberts is studying public service law. She's considering a federal job, something she would do with or without help paying her $50,000 in loans.
"There are a lot of students who are deterred from working for the federal government or public interest organizations because they know they'll be making a lot more in private practice and they need that to pay off these student loans," said Roberts.
A recent report by the Congressional Management Foundation found the student loan perks are one of the most popular in Congress. Members don't get it. Federal agencies and the House cap the total payments to $60,000 for an individual and the Senate limits it to $40,000. It does come with strings attached. Federal workers must agree to a three-year commitment to work. In Congress, it's one year.
Whether the program survives is up for debate given these days of government austerity with sequestration and shutdowns. After all the U.S. has trillions of dollars of its own debts to pay.