Sen. Elizabeth Warren

Massachusetts’ first elected female U.S. senator weighs in on the status of legislation that would give Americans relief on student loan debt.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren has devoted much of her career to studying the economics of middle class families. A law professor for over 30 years—20 of them at Harvard Law School—she chaired the Congressional Oversight Panel for TARP in the aftermath of 2008's financial crisis and is credited with being a catalyst for the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which President Obama asked her to set up. TIME magazine twice named Warren one of the world's 100 most influential people, and she made history in 2012 when she became the first female elected U.S. senator from Massachusetts. Her committee assignments include Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: The Student Loan Fairness Act, which would have stopped student loans from doubling and would have allowed students to go and pay the same interest rate on their government loans as big banks went down to defeat late last week, and as of July 1, interest rates on student loan will double to 6.8 percent, severely hindering the ability of so many in this country to get access to a good education.

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts led the unsuccessful fight to hold student loans at a fair rate. She joins us tonight from Washington to talk about the fallout from that increase.

Senator Warren, I am delighted to have you on this program. Thank you for your time.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren: Oh, well thank you for inviting me here. It’s good to be with you.

Tavis: Let me start, before I get to the student loan crisis, by asking your sense of how your home state of Massachusetts is faring. We know, of course, that they’re still recovering from this bombing. Where were you the day the bombing happened, and what’s your sense at this point of how the city and the state are recovering?

Warren: Marathon Day in Boston and all of Massachusetts, it’s Patriot’s Day and it’s a big celebration for us. It’s a day when we’re kind of the whole world’s city there. I stayed in Massachusetts as long as I could and then gotten on an airplane to fly down here to Washington, because we had votes late on Monday, and I stepped off the plane and heard that there’d been, bombs had gone off in Massachusetts.

I turned around and got back on the plane so I could get back up to Boston. Then they held us on the runway, and they said they closed the airspace over Boston, and you couldn’t get through.

You couldn’t get through on area code 617 to call anyone. Finally got back to Boston after a few more hours, and it was really tough. But I’ll tell you this – you really saw the worst in a couple of people and then the best in thousands of people.

People in Massachusetts, people who were there at the marathon, they ran toward the blasts. They were there to help people. We didn’t have more loss of life because we had so many people who were in, who were helping, who were giving first aid.

Our firefighters, our police officers, our healthcare folks, just everybody just performed remarkably. They were all heroes. Right now, Boston’s recovering. We’re Boston strong, and that’s really how we’re doing this.

People are coming back. It’s hard. We’ve had hard losses. Just yesterday was the – oh, it was the ninth birthday of the little boy who was killed in the blast, and had a birthday mass for him. So we’re still grieving, but we’re also coming back, and we’re coming back strong.

Tavis: Thank you for answering that. I know it’s always difficult to have to revisit those kinds of horrific incidents, but I appreciate your response to that. I was thinking, Senator Warren, as you were answering that question, I was thinking about the fact that it’s one thing for too many of us as Americans to live in fear of terrorism.

It is quite another to live in fear of not being able to ever get access to a high-quality education because you can’t afford it.

Warren: Yup.

Tavis: That’s a different kind of fear that’s palpable all across the nation these days. You are doing in Washington as you promised and as we expected you would, fighting for the least among us, and yet your stalwart fight notwithstanding, this thing didn’t turn out the way you wanted it to just days ago.

So give me your postmortem on how it is and why it is that this rate is going to double for student loans come July 1. What happened?

Warren: Well, okay, so you know the bottom line, and that is the interest rates, which are now at 3.4 percent for the new loans coming out, the new Stafford, federally guaranteed loans that are coming out, will double to 6.8 percent.

That’s going to be hard. It’s going to be hard on our kids. Look, I fundamentally think this is wrong. Right now, the U.S. government, us, the taxpayers, we invest in big financial institutions. We lend them money at less than 1 percent interest.

But if Congress doesn’t do anything, we’re going to be charging our kids nine times as much on their student loans. But I want to say this about it though, Tavis. We lost that vote last week – well, “lost it” is a relative term.

A majority of the U.S. Senate voted not to double the interest rate, but as you know, the Republicans now have the ability to filibuster, and that’s what they’ve done, and they said they won’t let the bill go through.

So we’re a few votes short of being able to break the filibuster, but here’s the deal. I’m not ready to talk about postmortem. I want to talk to people about how we keep pushing to get the votes we need. I’m ready to come back at this. There are a lot of other people in the Senate who are ready to come back at this.

But it’s going to take people all across this country saying, “This matters to me.” We can’t do this to our kids. We can’t be a country that invests in big banks and won’t invest in our young people who are trying to get an education.

So Tavis, let’s not call it postmortem yet. Let’s call it we’re still in the middle of the fight. That’s how I see it.

Tavis: I accept that, and I don’t want to put you in the position of the untenable and uncomfortable position, the unfair position of asking you to speak for the opposition.

But tell me, to your mind, how it is that members who we elect to serve us in Washington cannot understand what American families are going through with regard to trying to get access to an education and allow this rate to double.

How is that possible that anybody who has any care and concern for young people and understands the value of a good education could allow this to double?

Warren: Tavis, it is worse than that. The Republicans – let’s just call it for what it is. The Republicans have put on the table their own bill. Now right now, if we do nothing, student loan interest rates double. The United States government will make $51 billion in profits off the backs of our students.

The Republicans have said oh, let’s do a more market-based approach, and they would add another $16 billion in profits off the backs of our students. That’s their bill. They want to drive the costs up even more.

So the difference between right now where the Democrats stand, which is let’s not double the interest rates, let’s try to keep the costs low for our people who are trying to get an education, versus the Republicans, who are saying hey, let’s just make this where they just pay even more. That’s the big difference.

I’ll tell you, Tavis, it’s two things. This is about our economy. When students are having to pay on student loan debt, that means they don’t have money to do other things.

They don’t have money to buy cars. It means they don’t have money to have a down payment to try to buy a home. It means they are stressed financially, and it hurts our economy. It hurts them individually, it hurts our economy.

What the Republicans are proposing is they’re saying they don’t care. They’re saying let’s just pull more money in for the United States Treasury and do it off the backs of our kids. This is not about investing in the future for them, and that’s what we really have to talk about here.

How do you think we build a future? I think we build it by investing in our kids and investing in education. The Republicans see that very differently, and this is the kind of fight we’ve got to have, and we’ve got to have it out here in public. That’s what we’ve got to do.

Tavis: You are not new to Washington, but you’re relatively new to Capitol Hill, that is to say as a sitting United States senator, and you’ve hit the nail on the head for a conversation that is age-old in Washington that obviously continues to this day, and that is the notion of the filibuster, and whether or not the filibuster ought to go the way of the musket in this country, or anything else – the Model T.

How much longer can the filibuster remain a tool to be used or put another way, abused on the Hill, in the Senate?

Warren: Well, you really hit it right there on that, Tavis, because the point is we’ve had the filibuster for a long time, but it only got pulled out a few times. It just got pulled out in cases where there was a big controversy.

Now it’s being used by the Republicans to block, block, block. It really is the party of no. It’s no on student loans, it’s no on other things we try to get passed. Heck, it’s even no on trying to get judges appointed to the bench, trying to get somebody to head up the Department of Labor, trying to get the people in who would run the National Labor Relations Board, and trying to get a director for the new consumer agency.

It’s using the filibuster to block, block, block, block, block. That was never what it was intended for.

I guess maybe I watch too many old movies, but when you watch “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” (laughter) and Jimmy Stewart says, “I feel so strongly about this, I’m going to stand up,” at least he had to stand up and talk about it.

You didn’t just get to do kind of a secret where you put in something and say, whoops, all of a sudden it’s got to have 60 votes to overcome it and slow down the works in Washington, block good bills like the one on student loans.

What I’d really like to see us do is start with some changes to the filibuster. If you’re not going to get rid of it altogether, how about at least make people who want to do it stand up and defend why it is that they’re blocking legislation, they’re blocking appointments that the president makes to our agencies, that they’re blocking judicial appointments.

Make them stand up and be out there for everybody to see. Make them defend it. That’s at least a first step on reforming the filibuster. I’d sure like to see it. We can’t keep doing this in Washington, where the majority can’t get anything through, can’t do the people’s business. That’s not going to work for this country.

Tavis: Let me close – I know your time is limited – let me close where I began, and that is with this notion of postmortem. So I have been sufficiently spanked by you on national television. I will not refer to it as a “postmortem.”

Warren: (Unintelligible)

Tavis: But I will allow you, though, to answer this as the exit question, which is at this point, what is it that fellow citizens to do. What is it that you are asking the American public to do to push back on this notion of nothing happening and these student loan rates rising automatically come July 1.

Warren: Oh, Tavis, I’m so glad you asked, because this is really what democracy is all about. I’m down here in Washington fighting as best I can, and there are a lot of other good people who are fighting, who want to see the student loan interest rates held low, and I just want to say want to go beyond that and deal with the student debt that’s out there, deal with the rising costs of college.

Get some support for our kids. But here’s where it takes everybody else – we need help. We need help. We need people all over this country to put some wind in our sails to make this happen.

So how can you do that? People can sign the online petitions. They could call their senators, they can have their friends call their senators. You can email, you can Facebook, you can tweet about it. Every device you’ve got, and when you’ve done it, get your friends to do it, and get your friends’ friends to do it.

This is one of those things that when you say to the folks here in Washington people back home care about this, people in your home state are calling you and saying to you hey, this one really matters to me, that’s how we’ll pick up those votes we need here in the United States Senate.

This is one of those things, Tavis, we’re all in this together. This is about our values, this is about how we build a future, and if you really believe that, then you’ve got to be willing to get out there and do something about it.

So get in touch with your senators. We’re just a few votes short. If we can get a few more people in here, we can keep those interest rates low, and that gives us a foot in the door to start reforming, to start helping our kids who want to get an education. That’s how we build a future. We do this together.

Tavis: I know there are a lot of folk like me, Senator, who appreciate your fight on this issue, particularly as poverty. I believe it’s threatening our very democracy. There’s no reason why students ought to be punished in this way. So thank you for your work, and as always, good to have you on this program.

Warren: Ah, thank you.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

[Walmart sponsor video]

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: June 11, 2013 at 7:07 pm