CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, Los Angeles County has been ordered to pay millions in damages for harassing and intimidating residents in subsidized housing. We'll speak with a Los Angeles Times reporter who's covering that story in just a few minutes. But first, let's talk politics. We're joined by two of our seasoned political observers. Mary Kate Cary is a columnist and blogger for U.S. News & World Report. She's also a former speechwriter for President George H. W. Bush. And from our bureau in New York, Kelly Goff. She's a political correspondent for TheRoot.com. Welcome back to both of you.
MARY KATE CARY: Thanks for having me.
HEADLEE: Let's begin with Obamacare, also known as the Affordable Care Act, the ACA. A big announcement from the administration yesterday that some businesses, the larger ones, now have another year before they'll be fined for not providing health insurance to their employees. Mary Kate Cary, what's the headline here? What makes this important?
CARY: Well, what it does is it confirms what the critics have been saying all along, which is that Obamacare costs too much, it isn't doing what it promised, it hurts businesses. One of the president's advisors was on this morning saying, well, this only affects 200,000 employers. And I thought, only 200,000? That's a lot of people. And what was happening is these companies, these 200,000 companies, were downsizing their workforces and cutting back on their workers' hours, and I think that was contributing towards the jobless recovery.
And I think that's where the White House came in and said, we got to delay this in order for those companies not to be doing that and to give them help with the paperwork and things like that. So my issue, aside from that headline, is, as a speechwriter - 'cause I'm biased in that direction - is, I didn't like the fact that this was announced as a blog post by an administration person while the president was out of town, right before a holiday weekend.
As a speechwriter, I'd say the president should've made a speech announcing the changes, explaining what this meant to everybody in terms of their healthcare options, and try to get out in front of the story a little bit, and talk about how they're listening and they're going to fix this.
HEADLEE: I should mention, for the point of clarity, that there's not - there's no confirmed connection between Obamacare and the jobless recovery. But let me...
CARY: Right. But I think that's one of the considerations. Yeah.
HEADLEE: That's what you think.
CARY: Especially going into the election year.
HEADLEE: Let me go to Keli Goff here. What do you think? The administration says this is actually about trying to be flexible and accommodate businesses who say they simply didn't have the time to come into compliance. Keli? Did we lose Keli Goff?
KELI GOFF: Can you hear me?
HEADLEE: Yes, now I can hear you. Keli, what do you think?
GOFF: OK, sorry. Well, I think it's strategically smart, particularly to show that the administration's attempting to be flexible or give that indication, and it certainly doesn't hurt that it's a year before a midterm elections - wink, wink. I'm sure I'm not the first person who's thought of that.
HEADLEE: No, you're not.
GOFF: But I will say that the numbers that actually caught my eye, in terms of the timing of this, is that CNBC just published a new study that's out - a new poll that's out - that shows that the majority of bankruptcies are actually being driven by medical costs. And what I thought was really interesting about the study is it didn't just focus on those that we think of, which are those who have no health insurance, it also focused on people who are, as they call them, underinsured, right, which is that you have coverage but it's not adequate enough, and you end up paying the deductible, and by the time you're in the hole for the deductible, you can't actually afford your coverage.
So the reason I raise that is because I think that the timing is interesting, that I came across that, and that to me was a little bit more noteworthy than this because it kind of speaks to the larger issue and debate about Obamacare, which is that you poll people and you ask them - you ask business owners, you ask citizens - do you support Obamacare? And they say, absolutely not. I think it's too cumbersome, I think it costs too much. Then you ask people, do you support having, you know, your kids who are 20-something stay on your health insurance? Absolutely.
Do you support insurers not being able to turn away people who have preexisting conditions? Absolutely. So I think that for the political chattering classes like us, this is particularly interesting. For some business owners, I think this actually doesn't look so bad. I think they see it as the government actually giving them more leeway to make this easier to implement.
HEADLEE: Well, let's move on to something less controversial like abortion, shall we?
HEADLEE: Texas state Senator Wendy Davis obviously got a lot of headlines this week for her filibuster. She was filibustering a bill there that, among other things, would've banned abortions after 20 weeks and put new restrictions on the doctors and the clinics that provide them. We're going to talk about what's happening in Texas a little later in the program.
But we are seeing this kind of fight - of course we saw a huge bill pass and get signed by the governor in Ohio that includes a lot of restrictions, this is happening in North Carolina, North — Michigan. What's going on here? And let me begin with you, Keli Goff. And in terms of the national picture, what are we seeing in terms of state laws on abortion?
GOFF: Well, and there's a new update 'cause Tuesday, North Carolina tacked on a similar type of measure as part of their Sharia law bill. They actually snuck in a measure that would require - similar to Texas - that would require that abortion clinics have ambulatory certification. And so this is part of a national strategy. And actually, Mike Gonidakis, I think is how his last name is pronounced, who's head of Right to Life in Ohio, he was really honest and forthright and said look, we know we can't overreach, but - so what we're doing is we're doing an incremental strategy.
Which is, we're going to try gain a little bit here and there, and we're seeing this nationwide - South Dakota, Mississippi, Alabama, and it's effective. And the reason it's effective is because, you know, every person can understand why what Todd Akin said was offensive. Right, all of us understand what rape is, all of us understand that is a very tough situation, no one should be judging any woman for choices that they make after being brutalized.
Things like this are much harder to explain to the average voter and to get people who are galvanized around the issue. Polls show, from Gallup to Pew, 20 percent are against abortion in all circumstances, about 20 percent are for it in all circumstances, the rest of us are somewhere in the middle.
GOFF: And so this is why measures like this are effective, because to those in the middle it's hard to say, well, why is ambulatory certification such a horrible thing? I get what Todd Akin said was horrible - well, what's - why should I be against...
HEADLEE: ...Well, let me take that to Mary Kate then. Mary Kate, your response to this idea that it's an organized national strategy of death by a thousand cuts?
CARY: Yeah, no I don't think it is organized. I think what's going on is, as Keli is saying, she's exactly right, the great American mainstream is essentially either calling themselves pro-life with exceptions or pro-choice with restrictions. And so 80 percent, according to Gallup, like you were saying, 80 percent of Americans now support making abortion illegal in the third trimester.
So that is not an extreme view, and most people want more restrictions. They want it to be harder, not easier, to get an abortion. But they still want it to be legal, they don't want to overturn Roe v. Wade.
HEADLEE: And they want there be medical exceptions, as well. They never want to endanger the health of...
CARY: ...Right, of course, yeah. So I don't think that's an extreme position. And I think the states are responding with more restrictions because that's in the great American mainstream right now.
HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, we're having a political chat with TheRoot.com political correspondent Keli Goff and U.S. News & World Report columnist Mary Kate Cary. I want to go now to these - the student loans, which you've been hearing about mostly because they've doubled.
The interest rate doubled on Monday. It went from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. That's because Congress didn't get anything done before their term expired and they're now on the holiday break.
GOFF: That's shocking. Congress didn't get something done.
HEADLEE: ...Only applies to new loans. Seven million students are expected to take out these loans in the new school year. So what is the headline here, Mary Kate? Is it that Congress is unproductive, as Keli seems to be implying?
CARY: Well, that's not news.
HEADLEE: But this was a big issue in the election, why isn't it now?
CARY: I think part of it too, is like you said, it's only the new loans, it's only Stafford loans. So it doesn't affect that many kids. The bigger headline...
HEADLEE: ...Seven million.
CARY: ...Seven million....
HEADLEE: ...That's a lot.
CARY: ...Of which one of mine is, and yours too, we both have incoming college freshman.
CARY: But I do think that to me the bigger headline is that this got added to Obamacare, to the Affordable Care Act, this was a provision that got snuck in, which was the federal takeover of student loans. And it got very little press because it was rolled into the healthcare legislation. And so there was no outrage when it happened. What it did was it removed private banks from the student loan business, and that's why these are not market rate loans.
And we have Congress decreeing what loan rates should be. So there's a bipartisan compromise that came in last week to tie the student loan rates to 10 year treasury notes. Which is at least some sort of market forces coming in. Now, Harry Reid says he wants it to be 3.4 percent again for another year...
CARY: ...But that would result in approximately 95 billion in losses to tax payers, which is really not acceptable.
HEADLEE: Although, that's assuming that we're seeing student loans as a source of revenue. But let me go back to Keli Goff, you've said that this interest rate hike especially affects students of color. Why do you say that?
GOFF: Well, speaking as a former student of color, we are more likely to have higher student loan debt, because we're more likely to come from families that have a tougher time financing education. And that includes my own. And I'm from a middle class background but I went to - you know, I got accepted to some good schools and decided to go.
HEADLEE: Yeah I'm still paying my student loans too, so yeah.
CARY: So - but you know the real concern here - I'm genuinely getting concerned because since I graduated, which is in the last 10 years, there's been an 85 percent increase in the cost of going to public university, 85 percent increase. So I'm really genuinely concerned about what happens to this generation that was taught to do the right thing, tries to do the right thing, gets into good schools, gets good grades, and then they graduate and they're essentially in indentured servitude. And you can't get rid of that through bankruptcy.
So, I mean, I'm not saying that's a bad thing, I don't want our entire country saddled with additional debt, but we've got to find some way to give people an opportunity to pursue the American dream in every way.
HEADLEE: You're arguing, Keli, and then let me put this to you Mary Kate, that this isn't really about the student loan interest rate, that there just needs to be an overhaul on how we pay for college.
CARY: Right, absolutely.
GOFF: If you look at the graphs, every time the federal government increases money into the student loan program, the colleges respond with increasing tuition and spending more money. And that's the danger of big government policies getting into an area - just like we saw in the housing market, the government should not be in the student loan business. 'Cause look at how it's distorting the market, and look at these tuitions that these kids are being saddled with.
CARY: And if the government is...
HEADLEE: No, go ahead.
CARY: And if the government's going to be in it, then I'd like to see the president follow through with more of the stick and carrot routine that he threatened in the State of the Union. Right, which is that if you're taking money from us, than you need to prove to us it's benefiting the students, you're not just building a new fancy gym.
HEADLEE: Right, yeah, 'cause I have to say when private banks do student loans, they're not all that great to the students either, they're in the business of profit.
GOFF: No, they're not.
GOFF: But at least there's a market force, and I think this is - limited government is the answer to this.
HEADLEE: And we'll have to end it there. That's Mary Kate Cary, former speech writer for former President George H. W. Bush. She's now a columnist and blogger with U.S. News & World Report. Keli Goff is political correspondent for TheRoot.com. Thanks to both of you.
GOFF: Great to be here.
CARY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.