Q&A: U.S. Rep. Kildee on student loan reform, gay marriage and big money in politics


Congressman Dan Kildee D-Flint says higher education is a focal point of his platform. Fitting with his interest in Michigan universities, the Central Michigan University Alumnus spoke to College Democrats last week about several issues facing students, including loan debt, affirmative action and same-sex marriage. Central Michigan Life caught up with Kildee while he was in town to ask the congressman several questions pertaining to his stance on these issues, and any plans for reform.

CML: One of the top issues on the minds of younger Americans is student loan debt, which has skyrocketed in recent years. You co-sponsored a piece of legislation, the Pay It Forward bill, that would essentially make loan repayment rates income-based after having the government pay for tuition. Why this approach?

KILDEE: I think it’s one of many things we should be looking at. I, along with Congresswoman Susan Bonanmici of Oregon, proposed the Pay It Forward Act. Basically, it would allow states to pile at this idea that would have government pay tuition, rather than getting into the direct loan and repayment business. Basically, pay the tuition and have a student pay it back, or pay it forward, by just applying a portion of their earnings from the job they end up with.

The thought would be that it erases some of the uncertainty that comes with a student loan. It might not fit for everybody, but we should have a whole battery of ways to pay for higher education and not rely on anyone of them. (We want) to have a whole range of options so that every student that has the thought of potentially going to school doesn’t have the finances of their family as a barrier to do that.

The reason I say all that is because I think this is one sort of area where some experimentation might teach us something about how a pay it forward approach might work. But by itself it won’t solve the problem. We’ve got to do a lot of other things. We’ve got to keep student loan rates low. We’ve got to keep tuition down by having more direct support to universities and more direct support to students through Pell grants, and also create more incentives for people to save for college. For me, we have to have sort of an all of the above approach to making college more affordable. I think this could be a potentially helpful part of a broad strategy to keep college affordable.

What type of response has the Pay It Forward plan gotten on Capitol Hill?

Pretty mixed. I think there’s some concern — Look, we’re not prescribing to states how they would do it. But there are some that are concerned that if the plans would require people to pay more than they drew out because they did really well and ended up going to Wall Street, you know, and ended up making a lot of money or something like that or becomes a very successful lawyer or whatever it might be, and they might pay back more than they drew out.

It would be up to the states to do that. So, there’s been some criticism or questions about how it would actually be structured.

And the other thing that I would agree with that I would say has been a concern voiced, is that these initiatives, including Pay It Forward, shouldn’t be an excuse for us to diminish our other programs that are designed to support higher education.

There is no silver bullet here. I am concerned about that issue that’s been raised, and I want to make sure that I make it clear to my colleagues that we are not suggesting this as a replacement for anything but just as an additional source of higher education financing.

Along those lines in terms of higher education, there was a Supreme Court ruling on Tuesday that upheld Michigan’s ban on affirmative action with regard to college admissions. What’s your take on that? What kind of role should race play in college admissions?

I was disappointed in the court’s decision, and I’ll tell you why: It is a fact that this country had 200 years of discrimination against minorities. And even though that brand of discrimination is no longer legal, is no longer supported, it’s only been a generation that it’s been the case.

The point of affirmative action, which is a term that actually President Kennedy first used, is to take steps to try to quickly make up for many generations of discrimination by ensuring inclusion of minorities in the workplace, in higher education, etc., to more quickly get to a point where we no longer have disproportionate poverty and disproportionate barriers to higher education or to the workforce for minority communities.

And we’re not there yet. I mean, the data is real clear. We’re just not there yet. So, to me, it’s a perfectly legitimate function to say that we need to take affirmative steps to try to hasten the transition from being a divided culture to one that’s more inclusive.

One of the things I always hear from students with regard to government and politics is that they get disillusioned a bit when it comes to the partisan culture they see out of Washington. What’s your experience been like, and what do you think can or should be done to change this supposedly partisan culture, if anything?

Well, first of all, I share that frustration. It doesn’t get any less frustrating when you’re there every day. It’s very frustrating, and partisanship has gotten way out of control.

The problem is that until we deal with the obscene influence of enormous amounts of money in the political process, it’s going to be difficult for us to see that partisanship diminish. Because money, in concentrated power, in concentrated wealth, is influencing our political system in a way that disenfranchises the average, middle class person. And here’s the problem with that: That is not just a byproduct of money and concentrated money and concentrated power having too much influence.

I think it’s an intentional product of that because if the average citizen, whether it’s a college student or somebody who’s in the workplace and goes to work every day, if they feel like their voice is meaningless and not being heard, they’re less likely to be engaged and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

For me, it’s two things: One, people need to stay engaged because it simply won’t get better by becoming disengaged. And second, we need to have as a national agenda, we need to have a political reform and we have to take on these entrenched interests that somehow believe that the more money you have, the more free speech you have.

What specific reforms would you put forward?

The question is whether it would require a constitutional amendment. Personally, I think the Court ruled wrong in the Citizens United case and this most recent McCutcheon case. I think it’s perfectly legitimate within my interpretation of the Constitution to have reasonable limitations on the amount of free speech a person can purchase in a political campaign.

I think the Citizens United case, which is the case that sort of unlocked the ability of corporations to spend limitless money in campaigns, was wrong. We have to deal with this question of whether we think it’s legitimate role of government to place reasonable limitations on political speech in campaigns. I think that’s where the focus needs to be.

One of the major issues this election season is the health care reform law. President Obama, at the press conference where he announced 8 million people had signed up for insurance through the exchanges, urged Democrats running for re-election not to run from the law but to embrace it, defend it. What do you think of how the law has been implemented, the law itself, and what are your thoughts as to what the president said?

I think, first of all, where I do agree with him, is that we have to acknowledge that it was a big step forward to getting more Americans insured and to keep people from getting kicked off their insurance when they’re sick.

I think it would be important for us to also be willing to find where the problems are. Because with any law, even a small one, and this is a big law, the experience of implementing it should inform us in a way that allows us to make changes as we become aware of the need for change. I do think we should support it. This is a big step toward universal health coverage. But we also have to say, “When we find problems, we should fix them.”

So, I basically agree with the president. But the thing that I find problematic is to say that on one side, we’ve got a whole bunch of members of Congress who simply want to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and on the other side we’ve got another big number who just want to defend it no matter what, whereas I think we’d all be better served if we would just say, “Look, it’s the law of the land. Let’s try to make it work as best we can and fix the problem as they come up.”

That would be more consistent with the way this country has operated for almost 240 years.

What kind of issues have you seen with the law that you would like to see addressed?

I think the one thing we should be taking a look at is where, as I say, the anomalies are at because that’s what we hear about. We hear about the cases where premiums are extremely high and people can’t keep the doctor they wanted. But for the most part, when I ask people about their experience with it, it’s positive. But you don’t hear about those positive stories, just like you don’t see the headlines on the front of the newspaper about an airplane landing safely at the airport.

You just don’t hear about those things. What I think we should be focusing our attention on is what are these anomalies, where are these holes. It really boils down to when we see people with big premium increases, what is happening that is causing those insurance companies to feel that they can dramatically increase premiums on individuals they’re providing coverage for.

It’s still an insurance-based system, and the insurance companies still have tremendous latitude. I think some of our attention should be looking inside those pricing decisions that they’re making and seeing what can be done to make sure that those anomalies where you see price spikes ... when most are not, we need to find out why that’s happening and try to address it.

There was another court-related story that made headlines recently with regards to same-sex marriage in Michigan.  What’s your take on the attorney general requesting a stay on a lower court's ruling that legalized same-sex marriage and Gov. Snyder not recognizing those 300 or so marriages that took place in the state?

First of all, I was very pleased with the original court ruling that overturned Michigan’s discriminatory practices toward same-sex couples. Discrimination is wrong, no two ways about it. The disappointment that our attorney general either A.) couldn’t figure out what their position was or B.) decided that they were going to make this their cause is, to me, a problem.

They’re on the wrong side of history. Twenty-five or thirty years from now, or maybe five years from now, people like them will look back and be embarrassed by their actions, embarrassed that they actually stood on the side of discrimination. The reason I say that with a certain amount certitude is that I know people, I have talked to people, who were against civil rights in the 1960s and have had to apologize in shame for what sounded like a perfectly rational position for them to take 25 or 30 years earlier.

I was in Alabama last spring with John Lewis, who was a leader in the Civil Rights Movement and is a member of Congress now, and we met with people. We met with the daughter of Gov. George Wallace, who apologized for the treatment of her father when it came to the Civil Rights Movement, and many, many more. My point is this: History is the best teacher.

People who are continuing to cling to discriminatory practices against gay couples need to think very carefully about how they want their children to think of them in the future. Will they be one of those people who stood in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama and refused to let an African-American enter? This question of marriage equality and the rights of our LGBT brothers and sisters is the same question, and it’s one that I think history will shine a great, big light on.