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By Mr. SPECTER:
S. 3281. A bill to expand student loan forgiveness, to provide loan repayment assistance, and for other purposes; to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.
Mr. SPECTER. Mr. President, I seek recognition today to introduce an important piece of legislation entitled the Student Loan Forgiveness and Repayment Assistance Act of 2010.
This legislation is in response to the increasingly high cost of postsecondary education, an important issue that I recently discussed with Pennsylvania students. During this conversation I discussed the need for what I called an ``education bill of rights'' and today I am introducing a practical approach to increasing the accessibility and affordability of higher education.
On March 30, 2010, the President signed into law the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, AFRA, as part of the healthcare and education reconciliation bill, which I am proud to have supported in the Senate. This historic legislation made an important investment in higher education, including: $36 billion to fund and strengthen the Pell Grant program, $2.55 billion to support Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Minority Serving Institutions, $1.5 billion to strengthen the Income Based Repayment, IBR, plan as well as several other student financial assistance and deficit reduction provisions.
These actions were an important first step, but we must do more. According to Campus Progress--the total federal student debt is more than $617 million; the average student today graduates college with student debt 25 percent higher than that of college graduates a decade ago; the average college senior graduated with $4,100 in credit card debt and $23,200 in student loans; almost 7 in 10 college graduates are burdened with educational debt; student debt is outpacing the starting salaries of jobs in teaching and social work; 38 percent of graduates delay buying their first house because of debt, 14 percent marriage, and 21 percent delay having children; and over 60 percent of minorities face a gap between their expected family contributions, grants and loans and the cost of their education. These troublesome statistics underscore the need for further action.
I strongly feel that education is our Nation's greatest capital investment. The legislation that I am introducing today reinforces this belief and helps us make several smart investments in our Nation's future. We must improve accessibility to higher education, and the key to accessibility is affordability. For these reasons, the Student Loan Forgiveness and Repayment Assistance Act of 2010 will focus on 5 key initiatives which help make prudent and targeted investments in higher education.
First, my bill will strengthen the IBR plan. The IBR plan is an important tool that helps borrowers afford their monthly student loan payments by capping a borrower's monthly payment based on his/her income and family size. Currently the IBR plan caps monthly payments at 15 percent of a borrower's discretionary income. SAFRA lowered the percentage to 10 percent starting in 2014, which will allow more borrowers to take advantage of this helpful plan. I propose to further reduce the percentage to 7 percent, thereby allowing more students to participate in the IBR plan. In addition to capping monthly payments, a borrower's remaining debt will be forgiven after 20 years of making qualified monthly payments. SAFRA reduced this threshold by 5 years from the original 25 year requirement. My legislation will further reduce the number of years that a borrower must make his/her payments before debt is forgiven to 15 years.
Second, the bill I am introducing will enhance the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. This program, which was created in 2007 by the College Cost Reduction and Access Act, discharges remaining student loan debt if the borrower is employed in public service for 10 years. This program not only provides important loan forgiveness, but it encourages essential public service. My legislation proposes to make the benefits of this program more generous and encourage greater public service participation. My bill would reduce the number of years, from 10 to 5 that a borrower must work in the public sector before being able to take advantage of this program. After the 5th year, a percentage of the borrower's debt will be incrementally forgiven each year, up until after the 10th year of public service when all remaining debt will be forgiven.
Third, my legislation will expand the student loan programs or health professions, primary care, and nursing by reducing the interest rate to 3.5 percent. My bill will also expand the health professions student loan program to include physician's assistants. Health care reform's embrace of some 32 million previously uninsured Americans has created a need for additional doctors and nurses. Ways must be found to make medical education more affordable and accompanying debt burdens less onerous. I believe my bill helps achieve this goal.
Fourth, my bill will enhance opportunities for minorities by creating a new pilot program administered by the U.S. Department of Education, which will provide funding opportunities for minority serving institutions. This program will provide grants on a competitive basis to eligible institutions based on a college's plan to increase enrollment and graduation rates without increasing costs to students. My legislation authorizes $100 million annually for this purpose, for 5 years.
Fifth and lastly, my legislation will establish an Assistant Secretary position to evaluate and promote accessibility and affordability in higher education. It is important that we have a person who can not only evaluate the efficacy of the programs that I have discussed and to make recommendations to Congress on how to improve them, but also to help make prospective students aware of how they can gain access to, and afford a higher education. As I said earlier, education is our greatest capital investment, and I believe that the Student Loan Forgiveness and Repayment Assistance Act of 2010 will help our nation make a smart investment in our future.
By Mr. SPECTER:
S. 3282. A bill to amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to extend the work opportunity tax credit for employers of certain veterans; to the Committee on Finance.
Mr. SPECTER. Mr. President, the health and future of Pennsylvania's veterans has been a longstanding concern of mine. The first veteran I knew was my father, Harry Specter, a veteran of WWI.
My father received terrific care from the VA following his service to our Nation. I want to make sure today's veterans, whatever their age, receive the benefits and services we owe them.
I have had the privilege of serving for 6 of my nearly 30 years in the Senate as chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee. Under my chairmanship from 1998 to 2002, funding for the VA increased by 28 percent, and from 2004 to 2006, funding increased a further 16 percent. Such funding increases have allowed the VA to expand to meet increasing challenges.
I want to note at this time that I recently cosponsored legislation to restore collective bargaining rights to VA medical personnel, as their well being is vital to ensuring that veterans get the best possible care.
The ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, coupled with the recession, have put tremendous stress on the VA, and necessitate further improvements. Today I will outline proposals for making improvements in five related areas: reducing the claims backlog; increasing veterans' employment opportunities; combating homelessness among veterans; widening education opportunities through the Post-9/11 GI Bill; and expanding veterans courts.
In a slap at the men and women who fight our wars, a court created by Congress expressly to handle appeals of veterans' disability claims turned down the appeal of a disabled Korean War veteran because he missed a filing deadline.
The veteran, David L. Henderson, served in the military from 1950 to 1952. He was discharged following a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia and assigned a 100 percent disability rating. In 2001, he applied for in-home care and was turned down by a regional Veterans Administration department.
The congressionally established Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims--the Veterans Court--then refused to hear his appeal on grounds that he missed the filing deadline by 15 days. A divided federal appeals court upheld the decision.
After fighting a war and suffering long-term disability as a result, Henderson in later life has been penalized because he took 135 days, instead of 120, to file his claims appeal.
The fact that he had good reason for missing the deadline didn't matter. His psychiatrist called him ``incapable of rational thought or deliberate decisionmaking.''
On April 12, 2010, I introduced the Fair Access to Veterans Benefits Act, to provide for the tolling of the timing of review for appeals of final decisions of the Board of Veterans' Appeals. Its main provision would require the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, known as the Veterans Court, to hear appeals by veterans of administrative decisions denying them benefits when circumstances beyond their control--sometimes the very service-related disabilities that entitle them to benefits--render them unable to meet the deadline for filing an appeal.
On January 28, 2010, I met with VA Secretary Eric Shinseki in my Washington, DC office. Secretary Shinseki identified reducing the VA claims backlog--which currently numbers 400,000--as being his top priority this year. The average processing time for an individual claim was 161 days in January 2010. This is simply too long.
In January 2010, Secretary Shinseki initiated a pilot project at the VA Pittsburgh Regional Office to identify opportunities to reduce the time required for the VA to request and receive evidence required to support veterans' claims. I believe that efforts such as this, which leverage the expertise of veterans' service organizations, will help to decrease significantly the claims backlog by streamlining each claims submission, and so improving the care and benefits given to our veterans. I recently requested that the Milcon/VA Appropriations Subcommittee increase funding by $1 million in fiscal year 2011 for costs associated with expanding the pilot program.
Beyond this pilot program, I am introducing legislation to give the Secretary of the Veterans Affairs the authority to award grants to state and local agencies, and non-profit organizations such as VSOs, to assist in collecting evidence and submitting claims. I believe this pre-submission assistance will aid the Veterans Benefits Administration in reducing the claims backlog.
The National Guard has played a vital role in ensuring our nation's security since September 11, 2001. The citizen soldiers and airmen serving in the Guard have been called upon to serve both domestically and overseas.
Current law protects Guardsmen who are called up to serve overseas from losing their civilian jobs, but the same degree of protection does not extend to domestic missions. After repeated deployments, Guardsmen could soon find themselves having to chose between critical national security missions--like protecting the southern border or responding to natural disasters--and keeping their civilian job due to a five-year cap on cumulative service for employment protection, which can be waived for overseas service but currently not domestic.
Legislation is needed to ensure that Guardsmen receive the same employment protection whether they are called to serve domestically or overseas.
Congress took an important step when it established a tax credit incentivizing the hiring of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. This tax credit is set to expire in August 2011, and I am introducing legislation to extend through 2010 the veteran-specific provisions of the tax credit to assist recently discharged veterans secure employment.
On November 3, 2009, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki unveiled an ambitious five-year plan to end homelessness among the nation's veterans. According to the VA's latest estimates, there are currently 107,000 homeless veterans, down from 131,000 in 2008.
The VA's fiscal year 2011 budget request includes $4.2 billion to prevent and reduce homelessness among Veterans--over $3.4 billion for core medical services and $799 million for specific homeless programs and expanded medical programs.
On November 11, 2009, I held a field hearing on the issue of unemployment and homelessness among veterans. Among those who testified were four formerly homeless veterans who have benefited from HUD-VASH vouchers and VA job training programs. The hearing highlighted the success of the HUD-VASH voucher program and the need to expand it, so I cosponsored Sen. REED's Zero Tolerance for Veterans Homelessness Act of 2009, which would increase the number of vouchers by 60,000 over the next four years. Additionally, two of the witnesses were single mothers. Their testimony underscored the importance of tailoring assistance to the needs of individual veterans, and to ensuring that the specific needs of veterans with special needs, such as homeless female veterans and homeless veterans with children are addressed. I cosponsored Senator MURRAY's Homeless Women Veterans and Homeless Veterans with Children Act, which would authorize $10 million a year in grants for five years to assist homeless veterans with special needs or dependents. I voted for this legislation when it was passed by the Veterans Affairs Committee on January 28, 2010.
The GI Bill of Rights, which had remained largely unchanged for over two decades, was in need of revision. I was pleased to cosponsor and advocate for the Post-9/11 GI bill, which was signed into law in June 2008. This bill, which went into effect in August 2009, will provide for this generation what the post-WWII GI Bill provided for veterans of that conflict. As our men and women serving today will continue to lead and serve our country tomorrow, it is in our best interest to ensure that they are afforded higher educational opportunities.
Yet there remain aspects of this legislation which need improvement. While all veterans deserve educational opportunities, they also deserve the right to choose where to secure their education. For some, a vocational program, apprenticeship, or on the job training is more appealing than a traditional university education. We should support such decisions, and so I recently cosponsored the Veterans Training Act, introduced by Senator LINCOLN, to make this enhancement.
Various studies report that between 20- and 50-percent of the veterans returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars will suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, depression, traumatic brain injury, TBI, or other mental disorders, and half of those veterans will not receive the mental health care they need.
The symptoms and subsequent behavior associated with PTSD and TBI, as well as the abuse of drugs and alcohol by veterans suffering from these symptoms, bring many of these veterans into contact with the criminal justice system. Veterans account for 9 of every 100 inmates in U.S. jails and prisons. In Pennsylvania state prisons, there are approximately 3,000 male and female military veterans currently incarcerated, according to Dr. Mark L. Dembert, Chief of Psychiatry, Bureau of Health Care Services, Pennsylvania
Department of Corrections. That number does not include those locked up in county jails.
The chief goal of the Veterans Court program is to direct veterans who have been charged with a crime into an intensely monitored network of support coordinated by the VA and the courts. While Veterans Courts are voluntary, they will offer participating veterans a pathway to rehabilitation and reduced rates of recidivism. Following my February 2010 hearing on veterans courts in Pittsburgh, I cosponsored legislation, S. 902, the Services, Education, and Rehabilitation for Veterans Act, introduced by Senators KERRY and MURKOWSKI, which would authorize the Attorney General to award grants up to $25 million over 5 years to assist States in the development of Veterans Courts.
Our freedom has been assured by the courageous service of our veterans. Our gratitude can best be shown by ensuring that their needs are met, whether medical, educational, professional or legal. I will continue to fight for treatment of our veterans worthy of the sacrifices they have made and dedication they have shown.
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By Mr. SPECTER (for himself and Mr. Casey):
S. 3292. A bill to amend the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch to establish a weekend and holiday feeding program to provide nutritious food to at-risk school children on weekends and during extended school holidays during the school year; to the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry.
Mr. SPECTER. Mr. President, I have sought recognition to introduce legislation titled The Weekends Without Hunger Act. This legislation will ensure that children who rely on free and reduced-price school meals have access to nutritious meals on the weekends and during other periods in which they are away from school.
Nearly 20 million school-age children, including more than one million in Pennsylvania, eat a free or reduced-price meal at school. Existing programs designed to ensure access to affordable meals for these disadvantaged children at home are inadequate. A Department of Agriculture survey released in November 2009 reported that 49 million Americans were unable to consistently get enough to eat during 2008; 17 million of them were children. A recently conducted survey by Drexel University shows that the number of children under the age of 6 experiencing very low food security has tripled since 2006.
The legislation I am introducing today addresses the food insecurity experienced by our Nation's school children by providing them a weekend feeding option. My legislation establishes a 5-year pilot program during which time eligible institutions, such as schools and food banks, may provide a free backpack of child-friendly, non-perishable food for the weekend. It is my intention to seek inclusion of The Weekends Without Hunger Act in the upcoming reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act.
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