Elizabeth Warren Tells Bill Moyers Why She'll Never Be a DC Insider
In Oklahoma, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and her brothers grew up in “an America that invested in kids like us and helped build a future where we could flourish.” But, as she writes in her memoir, A Fighting Chance, “Today the game is rigged – rigged to work for those who have money and power… The optimism that defines us as a people has been beaten and bruised. It doesn’t have to be this way.”
Warren, a former Harvard Law School professor, is an expert on how Wall Street and the banking industry are destroying the middle class. She’s put that knowledge to powerful use on Capitol Hill, rapidly becoming the most authoritative and articulate voice of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing. Many are urging her to run for president.
Before returning to Washington for the start of Congress, Sen. Warren talks to Bill this week about the problems facing middle-class Americans. “Washington works for those who can hire armies of lobbyists, armies of lawyers, and get just the rules they want. It doesn’t work so well for American families,” Sen. Warren tells Bill.
“The only chance we’ve got is if those families will turn back to their government and say, ‘I demand that you work for me, not for the billionaires, not for the millionaires. That you work for me.’”
See the video and read the transcript below:
BILL MOYERS: My favorite scene in the book, Larry Summers, former president of Harvard, your institution, top economic advisor at the time to President Obama, takes you to dinner. And he offers you some advice. What does he say to you?
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: So we had a long dinner and given me lots of advice. This is when I was raising a lot of trouble over how the money in the bailout was being spent in 2009.
BILL MOYERS: You're not yet in the Senate?
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: That's right. I'm not yet in the Sen-- I'm not even thinking about running for public office. It's why I can cause so much trouble, right? I’m out there, causing trouble. And Larry was working in the White House as economic advisor. And so we had a long conversation about a lot of issues, argued about a lot of things, agreed on some things.
And finally, Larry said to me that there are two kinds of people in Washington. There are-- and you're going to have to make a choice here about what you want to be. You can be an outsider and criticize all you want, but nobody's going to listen to you. Or you can be an insider, and we'll listen. But the first rule is, insiders don't criticize other insiders.
You know, Larry's statement just amazed me. The idea that you can be an outsider, say everything you want, but we're not going to listen to you. Or you can be an insider. But insiders never criticize insiders. And it's why I'll never be an insider. It's-- I just can't.
BILL MOYERS: I thought when you were at this table 10 years ago that you knew more about Washington than anybody I'd talked to from Washington. So, since you had that dinner with Larry Summers, what have you learned about how Washington works that you didn't know when you were here 10 years ago?
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: So here's the part that's interested me that I hadn't quite seen. And that is that success succeeds. I know that sounds a little, but the idea that when I first stood up to talk about student loans -- you know what the problem is, we've got $1.2 trillion in outstanding student loan debt, 40 million people are struggling with student loans -- and the federal government is making a profit off the backs of our kids. You know, just the slice of loans from 2007 to 2012 is on target to produce $66 billion in profits for the government, after bad debt, after administrative costs, after cost of funds. Okay.
So I look around. This is a year, almost a year and a half ago. I look around and I say, let me get this straight. The United States government is charging these kids in some cases 6 percent, 8 percent, 10 percent, 12 percent depending on when you got your loans. And yet, they're charging the big banks on overnight funds -- the Fed is charging them less than one percent. About 3/4 of one percent. So I stepped out on the floor of the Senate and I introduced a bill. And the bill was to charge our students on student loans the same amount as we're charging the big banks. Okay. All right. Now, you know, a lot of folks said, "Whoa. Whoa." But when it came down to working out a deal so the interest rates didn't go up as sharply on the new loans, there were 18 of us who said, "That's not a good enough deal for the students."
So we had a divide. We had a fight in the-- a very public debate over this. But here's what happened, a year later we came back and we now have a student loan bill that says all of the student loan debt that's outstanding at high interest rates can be refinanced down to about 3.86 percent for undergraduate loans, a little higher for grad loans.
It's not as low as I'd like. But it's a heck of a lot lower than a lot of people are paying right now. And this time around we got every single Democrat, we got both Independents and we picked up three Republicans. That's 58 votes in the United States Senate. We are two votes short of getting it through the Senate-- only in the Senate do you have to 60 out of 100 because the Republicans filibuster.
Bill, we're going to vote on it again next week. If it doesn't carry next week then we're going to vote on it again and again. Because we're going to keep pushing this issue because it's something that's right. It's something that will help us rebuild America's middle class. It will help young people today.
Young people are-- they're not buying homes, they're not starting small businesses. They're struggling with the student loan debt. It's bringing them down. It's bringing their parents down. This is something that America sees, understands. We know which side families stand on and we know which side the millionaires and billionaires stand on. For me, it's time to choose and that's what I've learned about Washington. You make people choose, sometimes they make good choices.
BILL MOYERS: You were so effective as an outsider, as an activist, I have to wonder if you aren't frustrated by the pace at which nothing happens in Washington.
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: You know, frustrated-- that is a word that would barely contain how I feel about this. But yet, we have to remember-- when we talk about Washington, what's happening about trying to get things done. I think that this is about two pieces in terms of how we make change. One is that we make change by planting our flag on what we believe in. I think that is the most effective way to do it. We say, "We are the folks who are going to stand up for minimum wage." And that was every single Democrat. And you look around and say, "How 'bout you, Republicans? Where are you?"
And you draw this difference. You know, one of the easiest ways on the bankruptcy bill and other places, was so long as you can keep all of that blurry, then everyone can keep writing the rules for the rich and the powerful. So I think the most affirmative part of it is we've got to lay out what we stand for, and then we've got to be willing to fight for it. But the second part is we're going to have to tackle straight on money in politics. We've got to do it. Our democracy depends on this.
BILL MOYERS: The Supreme Court has made that hard to do.
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: They have certainly made that hard to do. However, let me make three points around it. The first one is, we have the opportunity to make change even within what the Supreme Court has done by way of more aggressive disclosures. The United States Congress should insist on more disclosure about who's putting money and this idea that PACs are being funded and nobody can tell where the money's coming from, and no one has to say in the advertising where the money comes from. It's just wrong.
BILL MOYERS: That's all-- that almost happened. But the Republicans-- Mitch McConnell blocked it in the Senate.
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: There we go. The Republicans blocked it. And we've got to get out there as Democrats and say, "We are in favor of this. We want people to pay attention to this issue when they decide who they're going to vote for in the election in November." So that's part of it. Part of it is, we're going to have to talk about a constitutional amendment.
And we've got to do this because this is where the Supreme Court has taken us. But the third part, and they are deeply related to each other, is that we got to have people who get deeply involved, involved in campaigns, involved in these issues. You know, I was in one of the most expensive races at the time, the most expensive race in the country. It looks like they may blow past it here in 2014. But there was something different about my race. We raised 80 percent of the money we spent in the campaign in donations of $50 or less. People who said, "I'm sending in $10. I'm going to add $15 a month for the next six months until the election. I will make a contribution because this is an election that matters to me. I'm part of this." We need people to take back elections, whether they do it financially, whether they do it by holding signs and making phone calls, whether they do it by talking to their neighbors and forwarding emails. We've got to have more engagement. It is our only chance.
BILL MOYERS: There's a new study coming out by two noted political scientists who say that-- they've studied 1,700 or so bills over the last several years and they conclude that when it comes to public policy decisions, that the affluent, the wealthy, the organized interests have far more influence. In fact—
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: It's true.
BILL MOYERS: --ordinary people, have almost no impact on public policy decisions in Washington.
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: Well, the point right now is that we've got to make some changes. And we got to be focused on what the difference is. I don’t know if you saw it but there’s a study that DEMOS put together.
BILL MOYERS: I did see it.
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: Did you see this.
BILL MOYERS: A think tank, yes.
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: Where they talk about what it is that most Americans want, but what it is that very well-to-do Americans want. And very well-to-do Americans have a very different view of the minimum wage. They’re not enthusiastic about raising the minimum wage. Of course it’s very removed from their lives.
BILL MOYERS: 70 percent of Americans say they favor raising the minimum wage.
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: Ralph Nader points out at a really good piece this morning that $7.25 is what minimum age is paying. That's poverty-level wages, while members of Congress are making, 40-hour work week, $83 an hour, plus benefits, health benefits, retirement pensions. This disconnect between what members of Congress, how they live, and how these ordinary people are living, how do you overcome that? Why is it? Why is that disconnect there? SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: So, you know, for me the whole question around minimum wage is very personal. I grew up in a family that had a lot of financial ups and downs. When I was 12 my mom was a stay-at-home mom, my dad was selling carpet, all three of my older brother off in the military. And my daddy had a heart attack. And you know, it was a period of time, no money coming in, the bills pile up. We lost the family station wagon.
We came about that close to losing our home. And I start the book “A Fighting Chance” with the day I walked into my mother's bedroom. And she was pulling on her black dress, the one that was her best dress, hung in the closet for funerals, special occasions, not just church, but extra special. And she pulls this dress on, and she's crying, she blows her nose, puts on her lipstick, pulls on her high heels, and walks to the Sears and gets a minimum-wage job.
And that minimum-wage job saved us. It saved our house, it saved our little family of three. Because in the 1960s, a full-time, minimum-wage job would keep a family afloat. Today, a full-time minimum-wage job won't keep a mama and a baby out of poverty. And that's-- goes back to the question of who is Washington working for?
You know, the American people are ready for a raise in the minimum wage. But the Republicans have voted, "No, no, no," on this. For me, this now gets down to the question of how we get people involved so there's real accountability. It's time for everybody across this country to ask of their senators, to ask of their congressman or congresswoman: whose side are you on? Are you there for the folks who are out there trying to work for a living? Or are you just there for the millionaires and billionaires?
BILL MOYERS: So me play something you said recently to the Netroots Conference, a grassroots advocate. You're talking there about the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau enacted by Congress against enormous Wall Street and corporate pressure. Here it is.
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN AT NETROOTS NATION CONFERENCE: We won because you and a zillion other people across this country got in the fight. We won because you got out there, you broke news, you wrote opinion pieces, you organized petitions, you built coalitions, you kept that idea alive. You called out sleazy lobbyists and cowardly politicians. You said, "We, we the people will have this agency." And you are the ones who won. You won this fight.
BILL MOYERS: And they won because you won because you led that fight. You won that fight.
But look at the recent story in “The Washington Examiner.” Quote, "Revolving Door at Regulator CFBP Enables Former Bureaucrats to Cash In at Taxpayers' Expense,” in other words, employees of the agency you helped create to protect consumers for which you were justly taking, giving credit to the activists behind you are going to work now representing the very industry that they were regulating. That's the old revolving door. It happens in every department of government. How can you overcome that?
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: So the revolving door, I mean, Eric Cantor just showed us how fast the revolving door can spin just in the last few days. This is really, this has got to be stopped in Washington. We have got to have rules that say you can't leave your job regulating an industry, you can't leave your job writing the rules for an industry and then turn right around and go to work for the industry.
You know, it's, it has become-- this is the part that is distributing. It's not just that they're doing. It's that everyone expects them to do it. It's now the culture of doing it which has the impact of infecting the whole process. We have got—
BILL MOYERS: Changing the culture.
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: --to put a stop to this. Change the culture. This has got to be stopped.
BILL MOYERS: How?
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: It has got to be stopped. It's rules.
BILL MOYERS: Democrats and Republicans alike do it as you know.
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: But the Senate and the House of Representatives write these rules. And right now the rules in effect say, "Have at it, boys."
BILL MOYERS: That's what you mean when you say the insiders write the rules to benefit themselves.
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: That's right. That's exactly right. Although, we cannot leave the subject of that little Consumer Financial Protection Bureau without talking about another aspect of it. That is it's making enormous change. It is doing such a fabulous job.
Do you know that it has now recovered-- it's only been up in operation, what, for just a little over two years. It has already returned more than $4 billion to American families who got cheated by credit companies and mortgage companies. It has set up a consumer complaint hotline where people can go online, file a complaint, it gets forwarded to the company.
And they're getting results. Not in every case. But they're starting to get results. Tens of thousands of people are logging on and having their voices heard. It's working. And here's how I know for sure it's working. The Republicans in Congress are determined to try to muzzle it.
They're determined to try to pull the teeth out of the watchdog. They want to make sure that they pull this agency down. Mitch McConnell in that, one of the secret recordings that has come out in recent days, Mitch McConnell said one of the first things he would do if the Republicans take over the Senate is they would cut back on Dodd-Frank, all those financial reforms. That's our little Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. So we've got this fight lined up again. Whose side are you on? The consumer agency who's out there fighting for people just so they won't get cheated on credit cards and mortgages and payday loans or the big financial companies that want to be able to make a profit off those folks and their Republican friends in Congress who are willing to help them?