The U.S. Department of Education risks becoming a “lapdog” as a result of recent actions toward financial companies such as Sallie Mae, Sen. Elizabeth Warren charged Thursday.
The Massachusetts Democrat said she was “deeply concerned” by a Huffington Post report that the Education Department had recently told Sallie Mae, the nation’s largest handler of student loans, that it intended to renew its federal contract to collect payments on federal student loans, despite pending investigations by at least three other federal agencies over allegations the company violated borrowers’ rights.
Warren, a member of the Senate banking and education committees, also said it was “shocking” that the department had not yet recovered some $22 million in allegedly improper payments made to Sallie Mae despite a 2009 recommendation from the department’s inspector general that it recover the debt.
“The Department of Education needs to be aggressive in watching out for students, not for profit-making loan servicers,” Warren said. “They’re there for our students, not to help loan servicers make a profit.”
The criticism comes as Education Secretary Arne Duncan battles perceptions that his department is too soft on the companies it pays to collect on federal student debt, while these companies are alleged to be harming borrowers and violating federal rules. Warren has been among his most outspoken critics, and on Sept. 19 she wrote him a letter demanding answers.
“The whole point of the letter was to make sure the Education Department is making it a priority to review its own contracts with an eye toward how Sallie Mae and others are executing on their responsibilities,” Warren said. “That’s what I’m trying to do.”
Stephen Spector, Education Department spokesman, said Thursday the department had not yet responded to Warren’s letter.
“Arne Duncan told me about a month ago that he was going to respond within a day or two, and then nothing,” she said. “We’ve been in touch with his staff since then, and they keep saying another couple of days. I’ve reached the point where I’m not sure what to expect from them.”
Warren also has targeted Duncan’s department for the extraordinary profits it has reaped off students who borrow from the government to pay for college. The profits, the result of the difference in what the government pays to borrow versus what it charges students, have increased in part because the department’s debt-relief initiatives have produced lackluster results, despite consistent prodding by the White House to improve.
With unpaid student debt approaching $1.2 trillion amid stagnating wages, a combination of higher debt loads and little-used default-prevention programs is leading to rising defaults and fueling government and financial industry concerns that student debt risks hindering economic growth in the coming years.
As borrowers devote ever-higher shares of their monthly incomes to repaying their student loans for longer periods of time, they reduce purchases of big-ticket items such as cars and homes, investments in potential new small businesses, and savings for retirement, policymakers have cautioned.
Officials ranging from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew have joined Rohit Chopra, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau student loan ombudsman, in warning about the potential economic dangers associated with increasing student debt burdens.
“We've got a crisis in terms of college affordability and student debt,” President Barack Obama said in August. “Our economy can’t afford the trillion dollars in outstanding student loan debt, much of which may not get repaid because students don't have the capacity to pay it.”
To Warren, the answer lies at the Education Department.
“This is really important -- the United States government should not be making a profit off the backs of people trying to get an education, and the Department of Education is one of the front-line places that we could make real changes in every part of what goes on in the student lending business,” she said.
“It’s tough enough in a world of rising college costs and mounting student loan debt for anyone to manage the cost of college,” Warren added. “The Education Department needs to be on the side of students. Their job is to be a watchdog, not a lapdog.”
Also on HuffPost:
Introduces Financial Product Safety Commission
Elizabeth Warren <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/03/10/financial-product-safety_n_173691.html" target="_hplink">announced</a> a bill creating a Financial Product Safety Commission with House and Senate Democrats in March 2009. The body was designed to have oversight over mortgages and other financial instruments to protect consumers against predatory practices. She said if the agency had existed before the subprime collapse then "there would have been millions of families who got tangled in predatory mortgages who never would have gotten them." HuffPost's Ryan Grim <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/03/10/financial-product-safety_n_173691.html" target="_hplink">reported</a>: <blockquote>Without all these toxic assets on banks' balance sheets, the institutions wouldn't be on the brink of collapse and the recession would be more manageable. "Consumer financial products were the front end of the destabilization of the American economic system." Sen. Charles Schumer's cosponsorship of the bill is notable because of his proximity to Wall Street. The bill's merit, the New York Democrat said, is that it regulates the actual financial product rather than the company producing it.</blockquote>
Geithner Opposes Her Heading CFPB
Tim Geithner expressed opposition to her nomination for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/07/15/tim-geithner-opposes-nomi_n_647691.html" target="_hplink">reported</a> HuffPost's Shahien Nasiripour. Geithner thought Warren's views on the big banks and Wall St. were too tough. Warren's oversight of the Treasury department as a watchdog for TARP apparently irked Geithner, agressively <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pz7ruJw6byQ" target="_hplink">questioning him</a> during Congressional hearings: <blockquote>While her grilling of Geithner in September, over what members of Congress have called the "backdoor bailout" of Wall Street through AIG, inspired the "squirm" video, just last month Warren pressed Geithner on the administration's lackluster foreclosure-prevention plan, Making Home Affordable. Criticizing him for Treasury's failure to keep families in their homes, she questioned Treasury's commitment to homeowners.</blockquote>
Ready For A Fight
Elizabeth Warren <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/03/03/fight-for-the-cfpa-is-a-d_n_483707.html" target="_hplink">reiterated her desire</a> for a strong Consumer Financial Protection Agency to HuffPost's Shahien Nasiripour: <blockquote>"My first choice is a strong consumer agency," the Harvard Law professor and federal bailout watchdog said in an interview with the Huffington Post. "My second choice is no agency at all and plenty of blood and teeth left on the floor."</blockquote>
Named Interim Chief Of CFPB
In September of 2010, HuffPost's Ryan Grim <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/09/13/elizabeth-warren-interim-cfpb-chief-consideration_n_715457.html" target="_hplink">reported</a> that Elizabeth Warren was being considered as a candidate for interim director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Days later the announcement was <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/09/15/white-house-taps-warren_n_715291.html" target="_hplink">official</a>. The move allowed Warren to set up the groundwork for the agency immediately without risking a GOP filibuster of her nomination, a response that seemed certain giving the <a href="http://www.boston.com/news/nation/washington/articles/2010/09/15/opposition_mounts_for_interim_appointment/" target="_hplink">public opposition expressed</a> by some Republican senators. When it came time to put forth an appointment for a longterm CFPB chief, Warren was overlooked, partially because she was seen as unfeasible, but also, HuffPost's Shahien Nasiripour <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/18/republican-opposition-to-elizabeth-warren_n_902165.html" target="_hplink">reported</a>, because she was a divisive figure within the Obama administration: <blockquote>Ultimately, Warren wanted the job, allies said. And near-united opposition from Senate Republicans -- 44 of them signed a letter saying they'd oppose any nominee -- should have made it easier for Obama to nominate her, since the Republicans publicly said they wouldn't support anyone for the role. Instead, the Republicans made it easy for the White House to deflect questions about the administration's lack of support for Warren. Asked how she squared the administration's public statements with its private ones, Warren declined. "I really have to say, I'm just not there. I'm not in the intricacies of the political part of this, and I can't comment," Warren said Monday. "The truth is I don't know anything about it."</blockquote>
Chats With HuffPost About Bureau
In October 2010, shortly after being tasked with building the groundwork for the CFPB, Warren stopped by HuffPost to chat with Ryan Grim and Shahien Nasiripour "This is the first real agency we've built in the 21st century -- well, there's Homeland Security, but one for the people. And it means we ought to think differently," said Warren. "The government can talk to people and people can talk to the government differently than when the Consumer Product Safety Commission was built, or when the FDA was built. And if we do this right, that should change the whole dynamic of who this agency really is." HuffPost's Ryan Grim <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/10/07/elizabeth-warren-consumer_1_n_754026.html" target="_hplink">reported</a>: <blockquote>By gathering information, contracts and documents from homeowners and consumers, and allowing watchdog groups and individual concerned citizens access to those documents, the agency can exponentially expand the manpower it has to review the operations of banks and lenders. The goal would be to become aware of a particularly fraudulent practice before it is rampant and insulates itself in the financial services industry.</blockquote> For full video of the interview, click <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/10/07/elizabeth-warren-consumer_1_n_754026.html" target="_hplink">here</a>.
GOP Calls Her A Liar
In May, Warren was called to testify before a House subcommittee and defend the merits of the CFPB. Some of the questions submitted by Republican representatives appeared confused and at times aggressive, leaving Warren to correct them on some basic facts about the actual purpose of the bureau. HuffPost's Mike McCauliff <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/05/24/elizabeth-warren-liar-gop-facts-cfpb_n_866505.html" target="_hplink">relays</a> one particularly contentious moment: <blockquote>The subcommittee chairman, Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), began the proceedings by suggesting Warren had lied to the committee in a previous hearing that had questioned the CFPB's role in offering advice to state attorneys general negotiating a settlement with abusive mortgage servicers. At the time, Warren said she was proud her agency had been able to help, at the request of the treasury secretary. But McHenry brought up the memo again, suggesting it showed that she hid a larger role in the negotiations from Congress. "This is our job, and we're trying to do our job, to be helpful to other agencies, and to help those agencies to hold those who break the law accountable," Warren said, repeating that she was proud of the work.</blockquote>
Announces Senate Run
Elizabeth Warren <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/13/elizabeth-warren-senate-massachusetts_n_960510.html" target="_hplink">announced</a> on September 14, 2011 that she was running for the United States Senate seat currently held by Scott Brown (R-Mass.) "After listening to people all across our state who know that we can do better, folks who are frustrated like I am that Washington just doesn't get it, I'm running for the Senate so I can fight every day for Massachusetts families," Warren <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/elizabeth-warren/senate-announcement_b_961624.html" target="_hplink">wrote on The Huffington Post</a>.
One month into her campaign to secure the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Scott Brown in Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren raised $3.15 million, largely <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/10/elizabeth-warren-raises-3_n_1003836.html" target="_hplink">from small donations</a>. According to a campaign email, 96 percent of donations were under $100. "These are pretty amazing numbers for our first official finance report, raised in a very short period of time," she said in an email to supporters. Warren's campaign has also attracted <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/18/elizabeth-warren-builds-s_n_1018334.html" target="_hplink">large liberal donors</a>, including colleagues from Harvard and well-known liberal donors like George Soros, Barbra Streisand, and DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg. Warren <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/11/elizabeth-warren-scott-brown-fundraising_n_1199680.html " target="_hplink">raised</a> an impressive $5.7 million in the fourth quarter of 2011. In early January, the candidate's <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/16/elizabeth-warren-money-bomb-fundraising_n_1208511.html?ref=mostpopular" target="_hplink">money bomb</a> pulled in more than $100,000 in just one weekend.
Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/23/elizabeth-warren-scott-brown-attack-ads_n_1223574.html" target="_hplink">signed a pledge</a> to curb third-party attack ads. If either campaign breaks the agreement, they would donate half the cost of the outside ad to a charity of their opponent's choice. "This may not work," <a href="http://www.politico.com/blogs/david-catanese/2012/01/warren-this-may-not-work-112119.html" target="_hplink">Warren said in an email to supporters</a>. "But there's enough at stake to make it worthwhile to try to take back this election."