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Negotiations on Student Loan Interest Rates Continue
Negotiations continued in the Senate this week to reverse a hike on interest rates for new federally subsidized undergraduate student loans that went into effect July 1st. These subsidized undergraduate Stafford loans account for roughly 40 percent of all federal student loans. I continue to advocate for legislation that permanently addresses interest rates for all federal student loans. On Wednesday, I voted against a short-term extension of the current interest rate because it would only cover a portion of federal student loans and be paid for with permanent tax increases. I cannot support another temporary patch that will only benefit a portion of students. It is well past time for Congress and the President to pass a student loan policy that provides certainty and reflects the long-term financial planning students and families undertake to pay for higher education. Education is often a family's most important investment and ought not be complicated by short-sighted Washington politics.
A bipartisan deal appeared to be reached Wednesday on a plan to base student loan interest rates off of the 10-year Treasury bill, but this agreement lost momentum after the Congressional Budget Office estimated the proposal would cost around $22 billion over 10 years. I continue to review this plan and remain hopeful that an agreement can be reached in the Senate to permanently address interest rate levels for all federal student loans before many students return to school later this summer. The House of Representatives already passed a bill to base student loan interest rates on market rates, and the Obama Administration offered a similar plan in its 2014 budget.
Labor-Health-Education Appropriations Markup
On Thursday, I participated in the Senate Appropriations Committee markup of the Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2014 and offered several amendments described below. I serve as Ranking Member of the Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over funding for all accounts at the Departments of Labor and Education and for most agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services including the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
While I worked with the subcommittee chairman and my colleagues to support initiatives critically important to Kansas and to our nation, I opposed this appropriations bill because of concerns with its overall funding level and its increased funding for implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). From funding biomedical research to making certain our nation's public health preparedness is strong and supporting our commitment to educating our citizens, the Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill contains necessary and worthy investments. However, in a constrained budget environment, we must make tough choices to reign in federal spending. This bill would cost $7.8 billion above the spending level enacted for the current year. It would move us down a path that ignores budget caps in current law and would knowingly result in another round of indiscriminate, across-the-board sequestration cuts. We need to create a responsible, bipartisan path forward. Funding the government in an incessant loop of continuing resolutions subject to arbitrary sequester cuts is not an effective way to run the federal government. But, until a larger agreement is reached, it is the responsibility of the Appropriations Committee to set spending priorities and develop appropriations bills that align with current spending caps.
A major concern with this appropriations bill is that it provides a $1.4 billion increase to implement health insurance Exchanges mandated by the ACA. It is important to remember that the law's supporters originally claimed that implementing these Exchanges would lower health care costs. Unfortunately, there is now clear evidence that Exchanges will radically increase health insurance premiums. And last month, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office reported that the Exchanges may not be ready on schedule. The Administration has already missed several key deadlines in setting them up and it may be unrealistic to believe that they can make up these delays in the next three months.
During the markup, I offered several amendments, two of which would delay the ACA's individual and employer mandates. Both of these amendments were defeated by party-line votes. I am also disappointed my Democratic colleagues failed to acknowledge that individuals and families, as well as businesses, need relief from this damaging law. The real problem continues to be the entire ACA. Its implementation has not lowered costs or increased access as promised. Individuals, families, and employers still face increasing health insurance costs, new taxes, burdensome mandates, and massive uncertainty because of this deeply flawed law. We should not continue to throw money at a problem in the hopes it will go away.
I also offered the following amendments at markup:
Amendment to move funding from the Individual Payment Advisory Board -- the 15-member board of unelected bureaucrats created by the ACA to make decisions regarding Medicare spending -- to the Children's Hospital Graduate Medical Education program. This program addresses critical shortages in pediatric specialty care by training half of our country's pediatricians and pediatric specialists.
Amendment to move the nearly $1.4 billion marked for ACA health insurance Exchanges in the bill to NIH to support biomedical research advances that are helping Americans live longer and healthier lives and reducing health care costs.
House-Passed Farm Bill and Call for Emergency Haying & Grazing of CRP Lands
Yesterday the House of Representatives narrowly passed a Farm Bill solely made up of farm policy and programs. Unlike the Senate version, it stripped out funding for nutrition policy and programs. Historically, Farm Bills are made up of farm policy and nutrition programs, uniting interests of rural and urban legislators. The bill will now move into a conference negotiation process with the Senate passed bill where it can be improved further. It is too important for producers and consumers alike to keep kicking the can down the road with extensions. The certainty of a five-year farm bill is needed to relieve farmers and ranchers from the constant guessing game.
This week I also sent a letter, along with Senator Roberts, to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack regarding the release of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) grass for haying and grazing in drought-stricken areas across Kansas. As we all know, Mother Nature is unpredictable and our state has not seen the last of the drought. There are producers who are still unable to feed livestock and are struggling to survive, and releasing CRP grass for haying and grazing would provide them with an important boost. I will continue to pray for rain and do everything I can to provide certainty for folks who are facing less than ideal conditions.
Bennington High School Visits Washington, D.C.
This week I enjoyed speaking with students, teachers and parents from Bennington High School when they stopped by the U.S. Capitol during a trip to Washington, D.C. I was impressed by the students' engaging questions and stories, and as always appreciated the good dose of Kansas common sense.
In the Office
Last week we had several visitors in the Washington, D.C., office, including the Kansans listed below:
Sam Brinton of Manhattan
International Myeloma Foundation
Cindy Ralston of Shawnee
Kansas Farm Bureau
Jim Sipes of Manter
University of Kansas Research & Graduate Studies
Steven Warren of Lawrence
Kansas Center for Assisted Living
Sonia Larimore of Coffeyville
One Voice Against Cancer
Gaybyrne Garrett of Merriam
Leesa Gabel of Olathe
Ashlee Gabel of Olathe
James Hamilton of Topeka
Dan Dixon of Kansas City
Kansas Department of Revenue
Nick Jordan of Topeka
Adam Nordstrom of Topeka
Kansas Soybean Association
Terry Reschke of Hiawatha
Dave Slead of Hiawatha
Dwight Meyer of Lebo
Lucas Heinen of Everest
Dennis Hup of Perry
Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation Children's Congress
Anna Gorsuch of Overland Park
Lance Gorsuch of Overland Park
The University of Kansas Pharmacy School
Greg Scott of Lawrence
Financial Services Institute
Andrew Mohn of Prairie Village
American Association of School Administrators
Brenda Dietrich of Topeka
Doug Scott of Wichita
Wind Power Policy
Village Presbyterian Church Youth Group
Luke Rose of Leawood
Tessa Polaschek of Prairie Village
Kayla Koenig of Leawood
Olivia Redelsheimer of Prairie Village
Allison Sernett of Overland Park
Jack Fenton of Prairie Village
Kara Koenig of Leawood
Emma Pirotte of Prairie Village
Maddie Willson of Prairie Village
Sara Nestler of Prairie Village
Jared Reinke of Overland Park
Zach Walker of Roeland Park
Alex Dean of Overland Park
Jimmy Jones of Kinsley
Marianna Jones of Kinsley
Natalie Jones of Kinsley
Dalton Kuhn of Smith Center
Mike Dmyterko of Shawnee
Faith Dmyterko of Shawnee
Hope Dmyterko of Shawnee
Richard Forwalder of Olathe
Beth Forwalder of Olathe
Callie Fabac of Olathe
Kate Fabac of Olathe
Betty Forwalder of Bonner Springs
John Fassnacht of Topeka
Tina Fassnacht of Topeka
Gregory Smith of Topeka
Kathy Smith of Topeka
Thomas Murphy of Edwardsville
Jennifer Murphy of Edwardsville
Lauren Murphy of Edwardsville
Hunter Murphy of Edwardsville
Mitchell Mayer of Paxico
Karaline Mayer of Paxico
Adam Henn of Paola
John Houston Jr. of Kansas City
Pamela Houston of Kansas City
Jalen Houston of Kansas City
Jada Houston of Kansas City
Dave Eichman of Hays
Sheila Eichman of Hays
Sierra Eichman of Hays
Derek Eichman of Hays
Robert Plamondon of Olathe
Tyler Plamondon of Olathe
Samuel Plamondon of Olathe
Ethan Plamondon of Olathe
Rachael DeGarmo of Wichita
Carrie Springer of Wichita
Honored to Serve You in Washington
It is an honor to serve you in Washington, D.C. In recent weeks, I've been listening to Kansans calling and writing in to share their thoughts and opinions on and big issues our country faces. Whether your thoughts are in the form of letter, a Facebook comment or a phone call, please know that I am listening and I appreciate messages from Kansans who wish to make their voice heard.
Please let me know how I can be of assistance.
Very truly yours,