Larson, Becerra, Courtney: A Better America Can Begin Today
WASHINGTON – House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (CT) and Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra (CA) were joined today by Congressman Joe Courtney (CT) for a press avail after the Democratic Caucus meeting on the effects of the Republican budget and the need to act now to prevent student loan interest rates from doubling on over seven million Americans. You can watch the avail and read the transcript below:
Chairman Larson: I’m honored to be joined by the Vice Chair of the Caucus and of course my distinguished colleague from the state of Connecticut.
Last week Representative Courtney addressed our Caucus, and he did so by explaining what he had done back in his district, underscoring what was going on and the timeline between now, which is 66 days, and student loans doubling.
This is an important and critical issue to members of our Caucus, clearly to students but also anecdotally from the parents, and I dare say grandparents, that we have been hearing from as well who would be impacted by this measure.
Rep. Courtney: Thank you John. I just want to say thank you to both you and Xavier in terms of getting the Caucus to focus again on an issue that is about as timely as anything that is before this Congress.
There is a bill which the Caucus has embraced - HR 3826 - which would lock in the interest at the 3.4% rate. A rate that in 2007 the Democratic controlled Congress passed with 77 House Republicans, 35 Senate Republicans, signed into law by George Bush, so clearly at the end of the day had very bipartisan fingerprints on it when it was enacted. Yet it was sunset - something that was well understood at the time; it was very clear in the language of the bill. An now we are literally days away from having a rate hike, doubling to back to 6.8%. Which at a time when student loan debt now exceeds credit card debt, car loan debt, middle class families are struggling, this is the most stable, affordable borrowing program for college that exists in America today. Seven million college students use it on a given year. Tens of millions of Americans have used the Stafford Student Loan Program since it was created back in the 1960s. Named after a Republican by the way, Robert Stafford who was a republican Senator from the state of Vermont. And the President, to his credit, in the State of the Union address back in January, raised this issue - challenged Congress back then - to say hey this rate increase in looming on July 1st, Congress needs to act.
Many people are focused on the fact that he is on the tour, in my opinion doing a great job raising awareness about this issue, but it’s being discussed a little bit like it’s just a political tactical move being done now that Mr. Romney has secured the nomination. The fact of the matter is he has been talking about this since back in January and the Republican leadership of the House so far has hardly shown a flicker of interest in terms of moving this issue.
Mr. Romney, who described the Ryan Budget Plan as “marvelous” a couple of weeks ago - a budget plan which locks in the higher rate at 6.8% and not only that doubles down in terms of hurting higher education affordability by cutting the Pell Grant Program the other workhorse of higher education affordability that serves 9 million college students in America today - But clearly he knows that the power of this issue with middle class America has made their position totally untenable in terms of the public.
People react with absolute disbelief at the notion that these rates are going to go up to 6.8% at time when Treasury Bonds are being sold at 2%, you can get a 30 year fixed mortgage on a house for under 4% and yet this one segment of America is looking at a 6.8% rate and a doubling of their rate and it’s totally in the hands of Congress in terms of fixing this problem.
Now the Chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee last week in the New York Times said that as far as he was concerned protecting the lower rate was bad policy, and that’s a quote, that’s not putting words in anybody’s mouth. I was glad to see yesterday that now he’s saying that they are now examining options, possible options, to deal with this issue. And he certainly is further along than the Chairwoman of the higher education subcommittee who incredibly came out with a statement a couple of weeks ago in a radio interview saying she had no tolerance for people emerging from school with $80,000 to $200,000 worth of debt.
Go talk to a nursing student, go talk to somebody coming out of dental school, go talk to somebody coming out of a PHD engineering program. I mean, the reality of America today, contrary to the perception that the chief policy maker and the House Republican Caucus has, is that’s really the debt burdens that kids are carrying. That’s what’s driven that number now to a point where it’s higher than credit card loan debt.
And I guess what I would just say is that this Caucus gets it, it has embraced the notion that we need to lock in this rate overwhelmingly and now the challenge is in the Speaker’s office and the Chairman of the Education and Labor Committee to respond to their putative nominee, Mitt Romney, who has said that he too supports the President’s proposal for locking in the lower rate and we are going to continue to pound away this issue with a countdown clock until the middle class of this country gets some help.
And thank you John for the opportunity to speak.
Chairman Larson: And now Xavier.
Vice Chairman Becerra: I join with the Chairman in thanking Congressman Courtney for everything he has done to bring light to what is going to happen very quickly- 66 days the ticking time bomb- very similar to the 477 days now we’ve experienced Republican majority leadership without a job starting agenda in Congress.
And so it comes as no surprise that in the Republican they put millionaires over Medicare and the put subsidies to oil companies over affordability in student loans for more than seven million American students going to college.
Seven million students, $1000 a year more out of their pocket, if Republicans don’t get off their seat to do something about this soon to expire provision to help them keep their interest rates on their student loans low. That’s real. July 1st.
Now, just last week, our Republican colleagues passed as measure in the House of Representatives that cost $46 billion in one year that would give tax cuts principally headed towards the very wealthy again in this country — and they didn’t pay for it.
$46 billion added to the deficit should it become law, and they did it without a blink. Yet here we see seven million students about to see the cost of going to college increase where it could lead them to have to decide not to continue with their education, and they can’t find a way to do this? It makes it very clear what the priorities are of the majority in the House of Representative.
We believe this can be done. The President is going to be on this aggressively, and House Democrats and Senate Democrats have also been out there and we are all going to attack this as aggressively as we can because we can’t allow that time bomb to go off in 66 days. It’s the future of not just those millions of American students at stake, it’s the future of our country, the leadership of this country.
And so we’re going to do everything we can to persuade our Republican colleagues that they should take on this issue with us, and hopefully we can enlist the presumptive Republican nominee for President Mitt Romney, who has Etch-a-sketched from being against doing something about keeping the student loan interest rates low, to now saying he supports keeping those interest rates low. So perhaps we can enlist Mitt Romney now to convince his Republican colleagues in the House and in the Senate to do what he says he is now for.
And with that, I yield back to the Chairman.
Chairman Larson: Well I thank the Vice Chairman and I thank my colleague from Connecticut who's done extraordinary work in this area as well. And Xavier, we are encouraged by the fact that the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party has embraced the President's concept and George Miller and Joe Courtney and the Education Committees.
I guess he said last night that a better America begins tonight. We think a way for a better America to begin today would be to convince his colleagues in the House to take up education bill, to take up the Courtney-amended bill, that will provide that relief. We think that a better America can begin today if he also does a little bit of a walk-back from the Ryan budget and focuses on the disastrous measures that would cut Pell grants and allow students to receive the kind of money – and further, as the Vice Chair pointed out – we think a better America can begin today with bringing the President's jobs bill to the Floor, which has been blocked. That would be a better America on three fronts, and it's a start, and we would ask the presumptive nominee of the Republican party to prevail upon his caucus, the Conference, to do so.
And with that, we'll take questions.
Q: If I could ask about some of the election returns last night, in particular Pennsylvania. You guys lost two Members of your Caucus, both moderate, Blue Dog Democrats here. Can you talk a little bit in a macro sense about redistricting? What the consequences are? What the challenges? But also the idea that you're losing moderate, Blue Dog Democrats, and, you know, you need to reach out to people to get the majority by having those types of Members in your Caucus.
Chairman Larson: Well, let me say first of all, any time that Members of our Caucus are pitted against one another, it is gut-wrenching for them and heart-rendering for us. These are valued colleagues. And speaking personally of a dear friend in Tim Holden, it's very difficult for Members here to see their colleagues go through it. This is what happens with redistricting. This is what happens in very difficult races. It does not make them any less painful and I daresay on a human side and emotionally, when you know the people involved, that it's never easy.
With regard to the analogy about Blue Dog Democrats, I would say that in Pennsylvania we had two conservative candidates that were running with regard to Mark and Jason.
With regard to Tim Holden’s seat, he clearly was the more conservative and was able to hold a seat for ten terms. And, that is a concern that we have in the Caucus and will continue to have. But it’s a democracy, and the margin of victory in a new district is what it is. Tim Holden will always be a valued member here and I feel badly for both he and Jason, they are outstanding members, we only wish that they had another district that they could run in where we know that they would be successful. I don’t know if Xavier wants to say anything…
Vice Chairman Becerra: Tim and I came in the same year. He’s been around for quite some time, like I have. You develop very strong friendships and working relationships with a number of your colleagues —Republicans and Democrats. You hate to see people who do hard work move on. And I think it’s important to point out: the Democratic Caucus is as diverse a caucus as you will find in any legislative body. We pride ourselves on that. If you take a look at the Democratic Caucus in the House of Representatives, you will see very shade, corner of America represented in the Democratic Caucus and we take great pride in that. We have folks who are very progressive; we have Democrats who are more conservative; we have folks from every corner of the country; every ethnic and racial community; and so that’s a mark that will continue forward in the Democratic Caucus here in the House of Representatives. That does not take away from the fact sometimes you see some of your friends move on. At the end of the day, we all serve at the pleasure of the people and the voters and we all recognize that and want to move forward recognizing that we all want to act as the one voice, one vote that those seven hundred thousand in each congressional district has and we hope to do it in the best way possible representing every corner of America.
Q: As you talk about the diversity of the Caucus, in just the past cycle because of retirements there are not very many conservative or moderate Democrats left and their certainly won’t be in the next Congress, regardless of who is in the majority.
Vice Chairman Becerra: We continue to have complete diversity in the Democratic Caucus. We continue to have every stripe you can think of, and we continue in many ways to reflect the voice of the America people, more so than any other constituted body of elected officials in the House or in the Senate here in this country. The complexion of the House Democratic Caucus may change a bit, but I don’t think there is any doubt that the House Democratic Caucus is still the most diverse body of legislative representatives you can find at the federal level in the United States.
Chairman Larson: The good news is that I think that we will hold both of those seats, as well. But Chad, also, this is a phenomenon with redistricting that we see happen not only in the Democratic Caucus, but in the Republican Conference, as well.
Q: Senator Reid introduced a piece of legislation that would stop the rate hike over in the Senate. It’s going to be paid for. Do you guys agree that this legislation should be paid for when it’s introduced?
Chairman Larson: Well, I think Xavier made the best point at the outset: we just saw our colleagues introduce a $46 billion windfall for the nation’s wealthiest one percent and here we are talking about students in desperate need — students and their parents and grandparents – in desperate need. I think the pay for is in the House is still a work in progress. Clearly, we feel the most important thing is that the students get the relief.
Vice Chairman Becerra: I know Joe probably wants to add something — I will just say this: I think there is an agreement between Senate Democrats and House Democrats that the way will pay for this is by closing tax loopholes that allow some Americans, typically wealthier Americans, avoid paying their fair share of taxes. So we’ll figure out a way to pay for it. We think it should be paid for because we want to be fiscally responsible. But we also think it’s desperately needed that we move forward and not allow interest rates to double on more than seven million American students going to college.
Rep. Courtney: I would just say that I think also the challenge should be laid out to the governing majority in the House of Representatives that it’s time for them to step forward and show real good faith in terms of the words that the Chairman of the Committee expressed yesterday in the press, which is that they are looking at options to fix this problem. I mean, they need to be a part of this dialogue; they cannot sit on the sidelines and just hope that Mitt Romney gives them cover on this issue. It's time for them to step forward and also be part of this process to solve it, just like it was in 2007, when we had very strong, robust, bipartisan participation in terms of getting the College Cost Reduction Act passed.
Q: Do you guys support the -- Senate Republicans said they don't support the pay-for that’s been put forth by the Democrats. Is there any alternative pay-fors that you guys would consider?
Vice Chairman Becerra: We're shocked that they don't support it.
Q: Shocked or not, would you guys try to figure out another way to pay for this?
Chairman Larson: Well of course. I think Xavier has indicated that, and we'll explore every option, but we'll underscore again that what we think is foremost is that the students get the relief. And by the students we mean not only the students but also the parents and, in many cases, the grandparents that end up having to pay this bill.
Vice Chairman Becerra: Thank you.