BREMERTON — When U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, visited Olympic College for a town hall style meeting with students on April 14, one subject led all others: education.
“At the national level, I don’t think there’s anyone who’s a stronger supporter of higher education and the students of higher education [than Kilmer],” OC President David Mitchell said.
“He’s done a lot to make college affordable, working on the structure of student loans, making it easier on students with student loans …”
The subject of ethics in Congress and the executive branch was a close second.
Before opening the floor to questions, Kilmer talked about various projects he’s involved in and causes he’s fighting for. That included strengthening ethics rules for members of Congress, as well as members of the executive branch.
“If you’re a member of the staff of Congress, you’re required to take annual ethics training,” Kilmer said. “If you are a member of Congress, you are not required to take any ethics training.”
Kilmer said he’s pushing to extend the ethics training requirements to the members of Congress as well.
He added that he’s also sponsored a bill that would require whoever is president, Democrat or Republican, to release their tax returns “to make certain there aren’t conflicts of interest.”
“The president and vice president are not subject to the same ethics rules,” Kilmer said. “I think we should change that. I don’t think anybody should be above the law of ethics rules.”
Pell Grants and student debt
Kilmer expressed a desire to get the economy “back on track.” This included his efforts to strengthen Pell Grants.
A Pell Grant is a subsidy the U.S. federal government provides for students who need it to pay for college. Pell Grants are limited to students with financial need, who have not earned their first bachelor’s degree, or who are enrolled in certain post-baccalaureate programs, through participating institutions.
“Pell Grants literally help middle class and poor families pay for college,” Kilmer said. “They do that in part because more and more families — particularly as tuition has gone up — find it hard to be able to afford college.”
Kilmer said that when he was in college, he had grants, loans and a part-time job to help pay for his education.
“While tuition has gone up substantially … the purchasing power of Pell Grants has stayed flat,” he said. “The average student nationwide graduates with $29,000 of debt.
“There are implications of that for the rest of our country.”
Kilmer said that the vast debt graduating college students have means people are delaying buying houses, which affects the housing market; fewer people are starting small businesses, which is “the backbone of our economy”; and an increasing number of college graduates are moving back in with their parents, more “than you’ve seen in four decades.”
“The primary driver, if you dive into the data, is student debt,” Kilmer said.
That’s why he’s introduced a bill “focused on revitalizing the Pell Grant program,” which would restore the purchasing power of the Pell Grants, allow for them to be used year-round and remove the taxes grant recipients have to pay if they use the grant money for things indirectly related to their education, such as housing or transportation.
When the floor was opened up for questions, Kilmer was asked about a multitude of topics. Below are some of the highlights.
Question: [Education Secretary] Betsy DeVos says guns in schools may be necessary to protect students from grizzly bears. Comment?
Kilmer: “I found that comment in Secretary DeVos’ hearing to be one of the more bizarre, baffling statements that I’ve heard in a public hearing
“I’ve got a 7-year-old and an 11-year-old, and when I drop them off at school, I want them to be excited about the day ahead, not fearful for their safety.
“One of the most challenging days I’ve had in this job was calling home one day and talking to my youngest child, and she said, ‘We had a special fire drill in school today.’ And I said, ‘What’s a special fire drill?’ And she said, ‘We went into the coat closet and covered ourselves with coats and then we were really quiet.’
“What they had practiced was an active shooter drill. Six- and seven-year-olds are now practicing what happens when someone comes into their school with a weapon. That’s not how I want my kid spending their school day.”
Question: If Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were to continue using chemical weapons and a vote was proposed whether or not to go to war, where would you stand?
Kilmer: “The situation in Syria is an example in the complexity of foreign policy, because it’s one of those situations where our enemy’s enemy is not necessarily our friend. In this case, very much not our friend.
“What you saw from the Trump Administration … was what I think was a proportionate response to the use of chemical weapons, by dropping 59 Tomahawks on their airfield. What we have not yet seen, and I think what is required, is a strategy. Sending 59 Tomahawks into Syria is not a strategy.
“I think there are two elements to this. One, you have to be able to answer the ‘And then what?’ question. If you’re going to have military action — if there’s going to be any escalation of military action — you have to be able to answer ‘And then what?’ Because what we don’t want to do is get bogged down in another Middle Eastern war without a plan for bringing American soldiers home. And I have not seen this administration articulate any comprehensive strategy at all on that front.
“Secondly, a legitimate question is, what is the appropriate role for Congress? I’m a firm believer that, frankly, any further action requires congress to take up an authorization for the use of military force.
“I don’t want to punt on your question. I’ll give you examples of parameters in which I will consider those issues. One, I think Congress should be involved in making those decisions, and two, I think those questions need to be attached to a broader strategy, and that we have not heard articulated yet from this administration.
“[If a strategy did come out] it depends. It depends on the strategy.”
Question: What’s your stance on money for public schools?
Kilmer: “I’m a huge supporter of public education. I say that, in part, as a dad to two little girls; I say that, in part, as the son of a schoolteacher. Both my parents taught. I’m concerned about the Trump Administration budget, in that it has a substantial cut to the department of education and specifically to programs that go to K-12 students.
“If you care about people being employed rather than unemployed, you should care about public education. Because what we know is that as educational attainment rises, so does the likelihood that someone is employed rather than unemployed. If you care about income inequality, you should care about education.
“In our state, if you’re a high school drop out, you’re 17 percent of our state’s population, and you’re 55 percent of our state’s prison population. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I would much rather invest in education on the front end than in prisons and unemployment on the back end. That’s the decision that we make as a society.
“As we evaluate these education issues, that’s the perspective that I’m going to be bringing into those debates and those discussions.”
Question: Recently, New York state has made the news by offering free college to residents. Could Washington state model anything similar to that?
Kilmer: “Certainly. I think what you’ve seen is … where if someone wants to go to college, either to get a degree or a professional certification, to be able to do that without ending up in substantial debt … There’s different ways to do that, either by providing it free, or by substantially expanding student aid. I’d support either.”
Kilmer said the question he is asked most often: Why did he get involved in Congress when it’s such a mess and he’s got two young children at home?
“My answer is always the same,” Kilmer said. “Because it’s a mess and I’ve got two little kids.”
— Michelle Beahm is a reporter for Kitsap News Group. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.