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Keep Student Loans Affordable Act of 2013--Motion to Proceed--Continued

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Ms. STABENOW. Madam President, I rise today because tomorrow in the Senate Chamber we will vote on whether to let student interest rates double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. This should not be controversial. This should have been done before July 1. Now we are trying to retroactively fix this.

We have attempted to bring this to the floor and vote on it before on a number of occasions. We have seen a Republican filibuster blocking us from doing that. This week I am hopeful we can get the necessary bipartisan vote to overcome the filibuster and be able to send a very strong message to students across the country that we understand this is a huge issue for them and their families, a huge cost, and that raising the rates will only be another barrier to creating opportunity for students in the future and, frankly, having a middle class in this country.

What is happening to the students and the debt involved is very serious, and it is stopping many young people from being able to move ahead and achieve their dreams. At a time when interest rates for everything else are at historic lows, why in the world would we double the interest rates for young people or older people going back to school who are trying to get an education and the work skills they need? Why would we allow that when we can get mortgage rates right now from 3 1/2 to 4 percent or a car loan for about 4 percent? I could go on and on.

Here is the shocking thing. If the rates are doubled--if in fact what kicked in on July 1 is allowed to stand--it will mean a huge profit for the Federal Government. That also makes no sense. It will mean some $50 billion for the Federal Government, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Why should the government profit off the backs of students who are struggling to get an education so they can get ahead?

We have a fundamental disagreement in this body between the majority of Democrats and the majority of Republicans on that question. It is a fundamental difference about what we should pick as a priority for our country. Frankly, for nearly 300,000 students in Michigan who will be forced to pay an extra $1,000 on their loans this year, it makes no sense.

I remember growing up in a little town in northern Michigan, working hard, getting good grades in my small class of 93 people, being at the top of the class, and wanting to go to college. But my dad became very ill and we couldn't afford for me to go to school. I was the first one to get a college degree in my family. I managed to go to school because the State of Michigan and the Federal Government at that time placed a value on educating kids like me, who didn't have a lot of money but had worked hard and had good grades and thought we ought to have a shot. I had a tuition and fee scholarship, and so I was able to go to college.

I put that scholarship together with working on campus and with student loans and I was able to get a bachelor's degree. I was then able to go on and get a master's degree and came out of school having to pay off the student loans. But because some folks--who didn't know this redheaded, freckle-faced kid from Clare--decided this was an important value for America, this was an important value for our State, I had a chance to work hard and follow the rules and make it. And who would have thought then I would have the opportunity to be here today?

I want that same opportunity for every young person in Michigan and every person going back to school in this country. Fundamentally that is what this is about. It is not about numbers. It is not about numbers. It is about whether, when we subsidize all kinds of other things--banks, and even the farmers I fight for, to help them with their crop insurance, and subsidizing rates for insurance to do things because it is good for the economy--why in the world would we walk away from that most basic set of values when it comes to our students?

Colleagues on the other side of the aisle say: Let's do something where we peg a rate. It is like a credit loan teaser rate. Sign up now at zero interest or 3 percent, let's put it there, and then over time it balloons like crazy and you are stuck. Those are the kinds of proposals we have gotten from the other side of the aisle. It sounds good now, but it is horrible later. I know a lot of folks who signed up for variable rate mortgages and balloon mortgages who ended up in the same situation. We are saying: No, we want a fixed rate. We want it low and we want to make sure students are placed as a priority.

So after all kinds of negotiations, we have said: OK, you don't want to continue the rate for 2 years. Let's do this: Let's continue it for 1 year at the low rate of 3.4 percent, and then let's all get together to figure out what to do about helping out with this $1 trillion in student loan debt right now. That is the student loan debt across this country. We need to help them figure out how to refinance that lower rate and then we can deal with the long-term cost. That is what we are trying to do. It doesn't make sense, when student loan debt in the country is over $1 trillion, when students are already sacrificing and scraping together the money to get an education, to double the rates on those student loans.

So when we look at this, we are looking not only at today but over time. In every proposal that has been put forward--and there are a lot of folks working, and I know there are conversations going on with folks who want to solve this problem--they all end up with the rates going up higher than even doubling the rate to 6.8. Why does that make any sense? Why would folks propose that? We have a fundamental difference in how we view this issue of the cost of college and whether there is a role for the Federal Government.

Do we as a country have a stake in keeping costs as low as possible, interest rates as low as possible? I would argue, yes, we do. And if we want to stop subsidizing things, I can think of a whole long list of what we could stop subsidizing. We could stop subsidizing the top five wealthiest oil companies in the country, which have more profits than anyone in the world. We could stop subsidizing them. We could stop the loopholes that are taking our jobs overseas. We could stop doing that. There are a lot of things we could stop that would save money. We should not put all this on the backs of students. We should not say that somehow we should make a profit to pay down the debt on the backs of students, when in fact there are so many other areas where we should be asking people to chip in a little bit more, not those who are already working hard to get a basic education.

We know we have to have a comprehensive approach, but until that work is done we should keep interest rates low. We should keep them where they are. And I have great confidence in Chairman Harkin and his committee, and Senator Jack Reed, who has taken so passionately the lead on this. Senator Kay Hagan and Senator Reed are our leaders on the bill we will be voting on tomorrow. Senator Warren, and so many others--Senator Boxer I know has spoken out so many times, as has Senator Sanders, and on and on, as well as the Presiding Officer. We all care passionately about creating a long-term solution for students that keeps costs low so we can keep dreams high and success high in achieving those dreams.

I wish to thank so many for signing petitions and sharing their stories with us. I would urge folks to get involved in the conversation by joining us on Twitter, with the hash tag ``don't double my rate.'' There is a lot of conversation going on and information that folks can find out about what we are doing.

I want to read two e-mails from constituents of mine. Corey, a student at Central Michigan University, sent me an e-mail about how this would make it difficult for him to continue his education.

As one of the taxpayers that you represent, I am asking you to please not allow my student loan rates to be doubled. I am a hard-working and respectful student. I make all of my payments. I go to class and do well. I work hard and am grateful for the chance to get a higher education, but if student loan rates go up I would be left to make a decision whether or not school will be affordable.

From the time we first start learning, we are encouraged to attend college and get a good job so that we can be a part of helping this country grow. I am simply asking you to help continue to make this an affordable option for me, and many others like me.

That story can be replicated all across Michigan and all across the country: Will young people be able to stay in school? Will they be able to come out of school and get the job they want versus aiming for a job that relates to their ability to pay back their student loans?

Then an e-mail from Matthew in Royal Oak:

Students are not asking for a bailout like the one that Wall Street got, just an opportunity to obtain an affordable education so we can compete in the global economy.

That is what this vote is about tomorrow. The Keep Student Loans Affordable Act simply says we are going to tackle this very serious issue for families across the country in two steps: keep the interest rates low where it is for a year, and then make a commitment to work together to fix the larger issue of the cost of college going forward.

I don't think there is a more important issue for the future of maintaining or recreating a middle class in this country than making sure we can allow everyone who wants to go on to college and get the skills they need to be successful in tackling and meeting their dreams than to make sure that college is affordable. A big piece of that is the interest rate on the loans that millions of students are taking out right now and counting on us to make sure they are affordable.

Tomorrow the question will be whether a filibuster continues on this issue. I think folks probably scratch their heads. We had a majority of people who voted--all Democrats--before to continue the interest rates at the current level of 3.4 percent. Because of the nature of the Senate and how things work, if there is an objection we have to go through this process to be able to overcome what is essentially a filibuster and we have to get 60 votes. So tomorrow we are going to have to get 60 votes, which means we need a handful of Republican colleagues to join with us to make a statement that we should continue interest rates at the low level while we work together in a bipartisan way to solve the long-term problem.

We have over $1 trillion in this country in student loan debt. It is more than credit card debt. I was surprised to see that. We have to help families tackle that debt. I would like to see refinancing options when interest rates are so low, and many of those are much higher interest rates. We need to tackle that. We need to tackle the overall costs of going to college and what is happening for low-income students as well as middle-class students.

There is a lot to get done, but it has to start by doing no harm. And that is the vote tomorrow: Do no harm. Let's make sure we at least keep the rates low now. We know there is a philosophical difference about whether we should actually help subsidize student loans. I think, of all the things we could subsidize, I would start with education.

Tomorrow the question is, Do we do no harm? Do we keep the interest rate where it is while we work out a long-term solution? Do we make a very strong statement that if we are going to set something as a priority for this country, if we are going to outcompete and outeducate in a global economy, it has to start with making sure advanced higher education is affordable for everyone who wants to work hard and play by the rules and go to college?

That is what the fight is about. That is what the vote is about tomorrow. I hope we will have an overwhelming bipartisan vote. If not, we are going to continue to do everything possible to tackle this issue because I think families across America are counting on us.

I yield the floor.


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