Statements on Introduced Bills and Joint Resolutionsby Senator Angus S. King, Jr.
Posted on 2015-01-07
KING. Economic development and jobs is what unites us in this
body. That is what we all want. That is what everyone here is striving
to achieve--jobs and opportunity for the people of this country.
There are many factors that contribute to that, and we can discuss and debate all of them this year. I suspect that we will. There is infrastructure, tax policy, smart regulation, and regulatory reform. But the one about which there is very little dispute is education.
The single greatest job creation and economic development act in the history of the United States was the GI bill, subsequent to World War II, which opened the doors of college and higher education, to millions of Americans and literally built the middle class in this country. Education is what it is all about and education is even more important now than it was then.
There was a time in this country when you could graduate from high school and get a pretty good job in a mill, make good money, have two cars in the garage, and lead a successful life. That is much more difficult today. Even those jobs in those mills require more education.
In my State of Maine we did a survey a few years ago that showed 70 percent of the jobs had people touching a computer every day. That is what takes an education, and to get an education takes access.
I will share one rather chilling statistic in terms of the competitive nature of the 21st century. We are engaged in competition. We are engaged in competition with the entire world and they want our jobs.
A little statistic is the top 8 percent of high school graduates in China are equal in number to all the high school graduates in the United States. Think about that for a minute--the top 8 percent in China are equal in number to all the high school graduates of the United States.
We are going to have to work to compete, and the only way we are going to be able to do that is if we work smart, and the only way we are going to be able to work smart is with education and expanded opportunity and access to education. Higher education in the 21st century, I would submit, is more important than ever.
There has been attention to this over the years by State governments, local governments, by parents, by students, and by the Federal Government, going back to the midst of the Civil War, when one of the great education bills of all time was passed, the land grant college system in 1864. Support for research at our great universities has been a Federal effort.
Student loans have been a part of what we have tried to contribute to this system for many years. Then, of course, we have Pell grants, which have enabled millions of students to find opportunity in higher education. But, ironically, the very programs that are designed to increase access to higher education have, themselves, become inaccessible.
Senator Alexander and Senator Bennet made a dramatic showing today with these ridiculous forms. When you read the forms the conclusion is: I guess my kid isn't going to go to college.
We have created a system where you need an accountant, a lawyer at your shoulder in order to fill out a form for financial aid, and the people who need it the most are the least likely to have the resources to bring those experts to bear on the process. Programs designed to promote access have themselves become inaccessible.
[[Page S65]] So that is what today is all about. That is what our discussion is all about. It is about accessibility and simplification. Senators Alexander and Bennet and Booker have brilliantly articulated the power of the idea behind the FAST Act: reduce the questions to just a few simple questions to get the necessary information. You don't need 80 pages of instructions to answer two questions. It will open the doors to literally millions of students whom we need. This isn't nice to have; this is need to have. This is an economic security and a national security question. We need these people. The current form is discouraging the very people we want: those who may or may not take the plunge into higher education. The simple fact is you shouldn't need an accountant to figure out whether you can get financial aid to go to college.
The complementary bill Senator Burr and I are introducing today, along with Senator Rubio and Senator Warner, is called the Repay Act. The bill Senator Alexander is speaking to is about accessibility and simplification on the front end. Our bill is accessibility and simplification on the back end, dealing with the issue of repayment. It basically reduces eight current options--and I have a chart that would make Rube Goldberg blush in terms of the complexity of the current options--to two. One is a 10-year fixed repayment plan, which certain students can select if it makes sense for them, and the other is a variable income-driven plan.
As Senator Burr pointed out, the ideas for this bill came from across the spectrum--from students, financial aid offices, financial aid administrators, Republicans, Democrats, and President Obama in his most recent budget.
By the way, one of the groups Senator Burr mentioned is the Young Invincibles. I would like to be a Young Invincible. I would like to see where I can join that group because sometimes I don't exactly feel that way. But this is an idea I think is invincible because it just makes so much common sense.
Borrowers can switch between the fixed payment and the variable payment depending upon their circumstances, but they never pay more than 15 percent of their disposable income.
I think another important provision is if a borrower is totally and permanently disabled and the loan is forgiven, they do not have to pay tax on the loan that is forgiven. Under current law, they have to pay an income tax on the phantom income of the loan that is forgiven.
I particularly thank Senators Warner and Rubio for joining us on this bill. They had their own bill on this repayment structure last year, and they have generously decided to join forces with us on this bill, and I believe that will add substantial weight to our work. They have already made contributions to the drafting of the bill, and I think that will help us considerably as we move forward with this legislation.
Quite often around here we talk about things we can't do--we can't do--problems we can't fix. This is something we can do. This is a human problem of our making by layering programs over one another and having the bureaucratic rules build over the years to the point where, as I said, it has created an accessibility problem for the very program designed to give access.
These are important bills. They are not necessarily the bills that are going to get the headlines or cause all the fights and the friction, but these are the quiet kinds of changes that will change our country. They will provide opportunity for our students, for our families, and for our country. I am proud to join Senator Alexander, the chair of the HELP Committee, and Senator Burr particularly, who has worked so hard on this bill. I think we have a combination of bills that will make a difference in people's lives and in the future of this country.
Mr. President, I yield the floor.
The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Tennessee.