Representative Ann Kirkpatrick will talk about the latest from Congress, including comprehensive immigration reform.
Ted Simons: A backlog of V.A. claims, a push to lower student-loan debt and the continuing controversy over a proposed copper mine near Superior. Those are among the issues we addressed to Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick in a conversation earlier today. Thank you for joining us. Good to have you here.
Ann Kirkpatrick: Nice to be back.
Ted Simons: Let's start with V.A. claims and the backlog of V.A. claims. This is kind of going a little under the radar. I know you've been interested in this. What is the concern here?
Ann Kirkpatrick: I have a caseworker in my Casa Grande office dedicated to helping veterans. When he reported to me the vast majority of his case load is claims backlogged, some of them, many of them more than two years, he told me he's hearing of people who died before their claim is processed. So a ranking member on oversight and investigations, we had a hearing, we brought the V.A. in and said, what's going on here? And what came out of that hearing is the great majority of delay is in the department of defense. And so they're having trouble transferring their records in electronic format to the V.A. So I and the chairman of the committee Mike Coughman of Colorado wrote legislation that's called -- It's called a Claims Operation Records Efficiency Act. And what it requires is that the Department of Defense now has metrics, they have to deliver to the V.A. in a timely manner, electronic format of their records. So we're really trying to encouraging them to go into electronic records keeping and away from the inefficiency of paper.
Ted Simons: I think many would be surprised that the Department of Defense has trouble transferring records electronically. Is this true?
Ann Kirkpatrick: That's what came out of that committee hearing we had. The good news is we just had another follow-up hearing out of -- After we had that initial hearing, the V.A. decided to direct personnel to the oldest claims. And they reported to us that they had been able to clear up 51% of that two-year and older backlog. But what they've done is shifted people from new claim processing, to the old claim. So there's going to be some tricks, but really those veterans who have been waiting so long should be processed as quickly as possible.
Ted Simons: And once they're processed, is there further measurement? I know the bill describes efficient electronic fashion to be delivered. What is efficient? How do we define efficient?
Ann Kirkpatrick: That's going to be up to the department to define the most efficient way. We'll keep oversight on that whole process. Because I say delayed care is denied care for our veterans.
Ted Simons: So department of defense and the V.A., what kind of response are you getting?
Ann Kirkpatrick: We're getting a good response. They say that they like the legislation, the V.A. Core Act, that that's the direction they were moving in terms of reaching a mutual agreement on how to address this.
Ted Simons: It's one of these moving the battleship things where it's going to take forever, or will there be some movement?
Ann Kirkpatrick: There's been some movement.
Ted Simons: Another issue I know affects a lot of Arizonans is regards to student loan debt. I know the bill out in focused on this, and another may not be a bill yet, but there's an effort to do something with Pell grants and to get banks out of the middle man process. Let's start with what's already out there. Students are just being crushed, some students, by student loan debt. What's happening with this?
Ann Kirkpatrick: If Congress doesn't do anything by July 1st, the interest rate on student loans almost doubles. There was a bill introduced by the Republicans that makes it even worse. So it's hard to comprehend why we wouldn't be trying to protect our students. And I hear from them all the time. Last night was in Flagstaff and NAU students were saying, we're having a hard time finding jobs. This is really going to devastate us. So it's a serious problem for our students.
Ted Simons: So right now if nothing is done by July 1st you're saying, the interest rate doubles?
Ann Kirkpatrick: Right.
Ted Simons: If something is done, the only thing that's out there right now is a bill that would essentially triple?
Ann Kirkpatrick: Almost. Almost. Make it worse, certainly than doing nothing.
Ted Simons: Making it worse I guess because of the market conditions?
Ann Kirkpatrick: The idea is these students borrowed this money and they need to pay it back market rates. But it's so hard on our students. We still have a jobs deficit in our state. In the country. And it's hitting really hard. Those new graduates.
Ted Simons: How do you address the issue without hitting the banking industry hard?
Ann Kirkpatrick: You know, we should keep in place what we have right now. We need to act and keep was in place right now. That's working for students, they're not complaining about it.
Ted Simons: I know there's also an effort to get banks out of the process of loans and grants to students. I know Pell grants, that's been addressed as well, more money into Pell grants, getting government direct loans as opposed to middleman with banks.
Ann Kirkpatrick: Pell grants are used extensively by students in Arizona especially in my district. Community college students really rely on Pell grants. I support Pell grants, I support raising the amount of the grant. Actually voted for legislation that would -- Did that in my first term.
Ted Simons: So this idea of maybe getting rid of banks at the middle man process, you think that's a good idea.
Ann Kirkpatrick: You know, we have to look at it. There has to be something that's fair and balanced. And basically it has to be done in a bipartisan manner. So we can continue having those conversation, but the important thing is that we are able to get these young people jobs, good-paying jobs, and that's my whole focus. I've said before my goal for Arizona is a diversified stable economy. And our young people coming out of college and University with a good education, really are part of that vision.
Ted Simons: Are you -- Last on the program we talked about the Superior copper mine, boy did that spark all sorts of conversation. We had both sides coming on after your appearance last time to give their best argument. What is the state of the land swap that is involved with this copper mine?
Ann Kirkpatrick: There was a hearing in the natural resources committee and all parties had a chance to have their concerns heard. And that was very important. And then it just passed out of that committee, so it's headed to a vote on the full house floor. And then it will go to the senate. The bill in the house is not perfect, and as you know I'm cosponsoring it with congressman Paul Gosar, which has been an interesting story, because you may remember he's the gentleman who defeated me in 2010. We've put that behind us and we're working together on a number of bills for Arizona that are good for Arizonans. But this is a major one, because it creates jobs. But the environmental concerns of the people who live over there are valid concerns, and they need to be addressed. So I'm now talking with members of the senate about how we can do that. What kind of environmental studies are fair, should be in the process, I want it to be an open transparent transaction with community input, and government-to-government input from the tribes.
Ted Simons: We heard from some folks in the community up there, and they had environmental concerns, water usage concerns, but the big thing was the environmental studies issue. They're saying do the environmental studies before the land swap as opposed to after. Is that a valid argument?
Ann Kirkpatrick: It's a valid argument. They deserve to know what's going to happen. And I introduced legislation my first term that did exactly that. So it has the environmental study prior. And then another one afterwards. But that's a very important part of the process. Those folks have lived in that area for generations, it's called the copper corridor. That proposed mine is within -- Easy radius of six other copper mines. And so those families are generations of miners. But they live there and they want a safe environment for their children and grandchildren.
Ted Simons: Is that deal breaking ground there regarding when this -- These environmental studies will be done?
Ann Kirkpatrick: I think we're having good conversations about that. They understand to actually get this signed into law, remember, it has to go to the president. So it's got to be fair and reasonable. And it's got to address some of those concerns. It won't be perfect and that's the way legislation is. There are goings to be people on both sides who aren't happy, but I think we can find a reasonable and fair compromise.
Ted Simons: Before you go, give us an assessment of the atmosphere back in Washington. Because from a few thousand miles away it sounds like if it isn't gridlocked it's close to it, especially in the house where all sorts of things are done and the senate completely ignores. What's going on?
Ann Kirkpatrick: It's so different from my first term. I feel more bipartisan action. And so the fact that Congressman Gosar and I are working together, our staffs are working together, I've been approached by other Congress members on the Republican side to cosponsor legislation. That didn't happen my first term. The freshman class has come in and started a new caucus, it's called United Solutions and they really want to solve problems. And people always ask me, why is that? It's because of the American people. In the last election they told us they wanted to elect members of Congress who could work together, find solution and get things done.
Ted Simons: So why does it seem like from a distance that's not happening? I know you're having your caucus and everything, but we -- All we're seeing is gridlock.
Ann Kirkpatrick: Yeah. You are seeing that. Especially on some of the major issues. That is still happening. But I'm very hopeful that this new trend will be able to continue. But you're right, we should have been able to sit down and reach a bipartisan deal on sequestration, we should have been able to do that on the budget. But that said, we are doing that with immigration. So there's a bipartisan effort in the house and in the senate. And I commend our two senators for taking leadership in that effort. So you're seeing it in various sectors. It's not ideal yet, but we're moving.
Ted Simons: It's capitol hill.
Ann Kirkpatrick: Right.
Ted Simons: It's always a pleasure. Good to have you.
Ann Kirkpatrick: Thank you so much.