Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jay Carney and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, 4/20/12
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:44 P.M. EDT
MR. CARNEY: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. It is great to have you here today. As you can tell, I have with me the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. This week, as I know you know, President Obama is launching a concerted effort to get Congress to stop the interest rate on student loans from doubling in July. Secretary Duncan is here to talk about that issue with you, to take questions on that issue from you. He can also take questions on other issues related to education.
You know, it's worth noting that Secretary Duncan oversees the implementation of the President's education agenda, his vision for investment in education and education reform. And that latter piece, the education reform, is something that, in a way that is often unnoticed or unmentioned by folks in Washington, has enjoyed broad bipartisan support. This is another issue that should enjoy broad bipartisan support, because you really have to have a brick in your head not to understand that education is the cornerstone of our economic future. Without it we cannot compete and win in the 21st century.
And with that, I give you Secretary Duncan.
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Thank you, Jay. And good afternoon.
Next week, President Obama is traveling to three states to talk about the fact that interest rates for new subsidized student loans are set to increase on July 1 unless Congress acts to change that law. The rates were set by Congress in 2007, and the current interest rate is 3.4 percent, and it will double without Congress's action to 6.8 percent. Based on the average loan amount, this will add more than $1,000 in costs over the life of that loan.
For students who borrow heavily to go to college, it would obviously cost them even more. And we estimate that this interest rate increase will affect more than 7 million families expected to take out new loans this fall.
At a time when going to college has never been more important, it has also, unfortunately, never been more expensive. Families and students are struggling to meet these costs, and there's no reason why we should add to their burden. And I have to tell you, as I’ve traveled throughout the country -- and I was just in Iowa and Wisconsin over the past two days with Secretary Vilsack -- not just in disadvantaged communities, but more and more middle-class families are starting to think college might not be for them, it’s for rich folks. There’s a real problem with that when we know going to college is the path to the middle class.
Next week, President Obama will outline the administration’s proposal to work with Congress to keep interest rates down and spare working Americans this added cost, this added burden. And all of us share responsibility for the cost of college -- from federal and state governments to educational institutions, students and their families.
And because this issue is so important to our economy and to our future, our administration is doing more than ever before to address it and we have a number of proposals in our 2013 budget. With the support of Congress, we have doubled -- doubled -- Pell Grant funding for low-income students, and nearly tripled tax credits for middle-class families. We’ve lowered the cap on student loan payments to 15 percent of income, and we’re going to lower it even further to 10 percent starting in 2014.
The President, Vice President Biden, and myself and so many others have held town halls all across the country to talk about the cost of college. We’ve met with university presidents, governors, state legislators and members of Congress. And next week, the President will meet with students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Colorado at Boulder, and the University of Iowa in Iowa City. These three universities are among the nation’s educational jewels, and we should do everything possible to ensure that they remain affordable.
And we also know that 2012 marks the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act, which was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln and created the first public universities. I think we have an amazing opportunity to honor Lincoln’s vision and secure our economic future by working together to ensure that college remains affordable for all Americans.
I’ll stop there. I’m happy to take any questions you may have. Yes, sir.
Q Mr. Secretary, this afternoon the White House is going to be screening a viewing of the movie, Bully. One piece of legislation that will protect LGBT students against bullying is called the Student Non-Discrimination Act to prohibit harassment and discrimination against LGBT students in school. Is the administration prepared to endorse that legislation at this time?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Well, we have to continue to do everything we can to make sure that there is zero tolerance for this. And I met with one of the young women in the movie this morning with her father. This is very personal for me and for the President. We all have children who are in school now.
And whenever children are going to school scared, when it’s hard to concentrate on biology and algebra -- so as a country -- hopefully you’ve seen an unprecedented level of support from our administration -- first-ever anti-bullying summit here in the White House. The President has talked about his own experiences there. You’ve seen many states toughen laws to try and protect students from bullying. Until our children are safe and secure at recess, in the morning, after school -- and it’s not just physical bullying, it’s cyber bullying, as you know.
And I'll tell you, some of my toughest meetings have been with parents who have lost their children who have committed suicide due to the impact. So we all have to continue to work together.
I think this movie is very tough, it's very hard-hitting, but it tells the truth, and hopefully it will create a greater awareness around the country. This cannot be a normal rite of passage; can't accept it.
Q And on the legislation?
Q Thank you. Is the President going to call next week for a one-year or temporary freeze in the interest rate, or is he going to ask Congress to pass a permanent --
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Well, I think we need to fix it now. We have an immediate crisis, so let's fix it right now. But let's think about the long term as well. And again, this has always enjoyed bipartisan support. We have to educate our way to a better economy. We know the jobs of the future are going to go to those folks with some higher education. And so to not do this together just doesn't make sense to me.
Q So you would support a short-term -- such as a one-time freeze?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Well, I think we need to get the immediate issue dealt with now. But let's all work together as a country to work on the long-term issue as well.
Q Mr. Secretary, what do you say to Republicans who call this a created controversy, that this is a deadline that comes out of Democratic legislation, that this is coming up right before an election and that the President is taking it out on the campaign trail? How do you respond to those criticisms?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: The facts are very, very simple. This passed in 2007 with broad bipartisan support. It was signed by a Republican President. We all understand that if we want to keep jobs in this country -- we're not competing in our little districts and in our states, we're competing against India and China and Singapore and South Korea -- and if we want to keep those good jobs here we have to have an educated workforce.
And I have lots of data -- you guys all know this, but over the past year if you have less than a high school diploma, there's been a decrease of about 200,000 jobs in this country; if you have some college or an associate's degree, an increase of about 750,000 jobs. And if you have a bachelor's degree or more, we've had about 1.4 million new jobs created. And we know those trends are only going to continue.
So we all have to -- again, this isn't a Republican or Democratic or -- I could care less about politics and ideology. This is about we need an educated workforce. And it's fascinating to me that in a really tough economic time like this, we have 2 million high-wage, high-skilled jobs that are unfilled because we're not producing the employees with the skills that employers are looking for. I can't tell you how many CEOs I've met with and the President has met with who have said, we're trying to hire now; we're not trying to export jobs, but you're not producing the workers.
We don't just have a jobs issue now; we have a skills crisis. We have a skills gap. We have to close that skills gap. The only way we do that is to have a lot more young people graduate from college and go on to -- graduate from high school and go on to college.
Q Just to be clear, you're saying that Republicans are wrong to suggest that this is being brought up as a wedge issue?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Absolutely. This was passed five years ago in a bipartisan way. No reason it shouldn't pass again in a bipartisan way. It was signed by a Republican governor [sic]. We have to educate our way to a better economy. That is not a Republican or a Democrat or any issue -- that's just a -- that's just reality.
Q Mr. Secretary, you said that it would increase the average loan by $1,000 over its life. What is the life of an average loan?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: It depends, but the average is 12 years. It varies. And so for each year this doesn't happen it would be an additional $1,000. So if it doesn't happen this year, it's $1,000; another year, $2,000. And again, right now, we know debt from college exceeds credit card debt in this country. Something is wrong with that picture. We don’t need to increase that debt. We need to keep it where it is, at a minimum.
And obviously, we've done so much to try and make college more affordable -- we've talked about Pell grants, Perkins loans increases. We're asking for the ability to double work-study opportunities. College has to be affordable for the middle class and for folks aspiring to go to the middle class. And unfortunately, many, many, many American families -- again, all types of neighborhoods, all types of backgrounds -- are starting to think college isn't for them. That’s a real problem.
Q Secretary Duncan, you have a lot of zest at the podium about this issue. Let me use a term that’s familiar to you -- are you going to put some skin in the game -- going on the Hill, you and the President, talking about this?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: I'll do whatever it takes. And I've been out traveling the country every single week talking about this for a long time. I've done a number of town halls with the Vice President. The President has been out there. He's going to three different universities next week.
And this is, again, one where it just -- I know you guys love politics and love all that stuff -- that’s zero of my interest. I'm not any good at it, don’t care about it. We need a lot more young people to go to college and to graduate. That’s all this is about. And when families start to think that they can't afford college, that is not good for those families, for those communities, or for our country.
Q But are you willing to go to the Hill --
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Of course. Absolutely. Absolutely. Whatever it takes, we'll keep working it.
Q Secretary Duncan, I want to ask you a question about school safety. Today is the 13th anniversary of Columbine. The fifth anniversary of Virginia Tech passed this week. Obviously a lot of lessons have been learned, but from your perspective, what more needs to be done?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: It's a great question – they don’t have easy answers. I think we as a nation have learned a tremendous amount about the warning signs and about acting very, very quickly when there is an issue. But I just sort of take it right back to the bullying issue, that when we have children or young adults or high school students who don’t feel safe, who aren't secure, you can't begin to be as effective as you need to and concentrate academically. And so creating a climate that is free of violence, free of fear, where young people can concentrate on what's going on in class is desperately important.
So I think there's been a lot of progress. We've actually seen a reduction in violence, which has been very encouraging. But one incident is obviously one incident way too many. And I come at this more as a parent than anything else. I have a 10-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old son, and I don't want them or anyone else's children having to worry about this going to school each day.
Q Can you also speak, aside from the bullying aspect, the mental health aspect -- because, for instance, in both of those shootings, that may have played a bigger role than bullying or an atmosphere of violence -- identifying --
SECRETARY DUNCAN: I think that's correct. And universities, peers, fellow students, when we're seeing something that doesn’t feel right or doesn’t look right, raising those alarms early and letting folks know that this is a student or a young person or a young adult with some issues that are worrying -- we have to have those conversations.
And so often in these situations -- not always, but so often, there's some signs, there's some indications that this person isn't stable. And I think we have to take those -- unfortunately, we have to take those very, very seriously. It's not something we can sort of blow through.
Q Mr. Secretary, Congressman Kline’s office just issued a statement as you were coming to the podium, basically saying that no one has offered a serious proposal, meaningful proposal to pay for this $6 billion stopgap. What do you see as the way to pay for this so that we are not borrowing more money, adding to --
SECRETARY DUNCAN: The President's budget contained a number of proposals to pay for it -- again, something we want to work very closely with Congress to do. And we need to pay for it. We're committed to paying for it. Lots of ideas out there -- the President will talk more about them next week -- but absolutely want to work with Congress. I have tremendous respect for Chairman Kline. We've had a very, very good working relationship. And again, this is the right thing to do for the country and for his families in Minnesota.
Q Mr. Secretary, how would you go about balancing the reality of the cost of college with the concerns up there that allowing more access to more credit would create possibly a student loan bubble down the road and actually increase college tuition?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: So again, I think the most important thing we can do is to have young people go to college and graduate. And that's the best investment we can make. And when that debt is manageable -- obviously if you have no debt that's maybe the best situation, but this is not bad debt to have. In fact, it's very good debt to have. And we have all kinds of data not just around jobs but around how much your earning potential throughout your lifetime goes up from high school graduate to two-years degree to four-year degree. So this is the best long-term investment we can make.
But we are worried about debt going higher and higher. And so when we have an opportunity to work together in a bipartisan way to prevent that escalation of debt, this is the right thing to do. I expect folks will step up and do that.
Q Do you think there is a correlation between more access to student loans and the rise in cost of tuition?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: I don't. We've looked at it really closely -- actually more on the Pell Grant side. The data is very interesting. People say when you increase Pell grants, tuition goes up. If you look over 30 years, over those 30 years, 19 of those years Pell grants went up; 10 of those years Pell grants went down; one year it was stable -- and all 30 of those years tuition went up. So I don't think there's a correlation there.
But we are challenging -- this is about shared responsibility. As you know, we're challenging states to continue to invest. We're trying to lead by example -- huge increases in Pell Grants, the biggest since the GI Bill; Perkins loans, double work-study, make the ALTC permanent. But states have to invest. We can't do this by ourselves. And universities have to keep down their tuition and also build cultures around completion.
We're trying to do a lot to provide greater transparency and score cards so families can make good choices about which university is going to provide a great education but also be at a reasonable cost. I think that transparency, that shared responsibility is hugely important.
Q Mr. Secretary, thank you, sir. As far as President Obama and his initiative is concerned, some education -- a delegation from India is in town and they are talking about they're opening up 100 or more community colleges in India. So a high-level delegation is coming for a conference in June in Washington, D.C. So where do we stand on this?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: I've met repeatedly with my counterpart, the education minister from India. He's a remarkable man. And we think we have challenges here -- you're trying to go to school at an amazingly rapid rate. I've said repeatedly, whatever we can do to be helpful we want to do that.
My Under Secretary, Martha Kanter, is a former community college president. It’s the first time anyone of that stature in our administration -- any administration -- has had that community college background. And so whatever we can do to partner with the leaders from India, we want to do that. It’s a very, very ambitious goal, and we want to see them achieve that.
Q Just to follow, once India was a house of knowledge and (inaudible) and today, India also has hundreds of thousands of colleges and universities and schools and so forth. So how U.S. can help Indian students and India can help --
SECRETARY DUNCAN: We’re all in this together. This is why I really believe a rising tide lifts all boats, and the more we have an educated workforce here in America, the more we have an educated workforce in India, the more we have that next generation of both employees and consumers, that's great for the world.
And so we want to partner together. We have, I think, still the best system of higher education in the world. We have amazing, amazing community colleges. I was at three over the past two days in India -- not in India -- in Wisconsin and Iowa. And whatever best practices we can share, whatever we can do to help India as they go on this very ambitious growth pattern, growth trajectory, we want to do that.
Q Mr. Secretary, what’s so special about these three universities that the President is going to visit besides the states they're in? Do they have a higher rate of students using loans or something?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Well, these are big flagship universities. And again, it’s not just the private four-years, it’s the public four-years that folks are really having concerns about paying for.
Q There are a lot of universities. Why these three?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Again, these are big, major flagship universities with large student populations, and these are the kinds of families -- middle-class families that are having a hard time paying for this. And what we want is more and more young people going on to these type of universities not feeling that college isn’t for them.
I’ll tell you, yesterday in Iowa I talked to a high school senior who happens to be a twin -- talked to her -- her brother wasn’t there. But she said her family is thinking they're going to have choose which one of them should go to college next year. It’s a really deep conversation and no family should have to choose this child or that child.
Another young person is one of four in their family -- they're trying to figure out does the older one not go, or does the younger one not go. These are the very real conversations -- this is a high school student, East High School in Madison, Wisconsin. These are the very real conversations that families are having. They should not have to have those conversations. You shouldn’t have to sacrifice one twin for the other. You shouldn’t have to sacrifice your eldest-born for you fourth-born or whatever it might be. This has to be an affordable opportunity for hardworking Americans, and we need to make sure it stays that way.
Q You said there are a lot of ideas the President has and that the Hill has, Congress has for paying for it, but do you guys have a preferred option? When you go to the Hill what are you going to bring to the table?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: We’re open-minded. Again, there’s a number of ideas that the President proposed in his budget. And we want to work hand-in-hand with Congress and we’re not set in one idea. We absolutely want to pay for it. But again, the cost of inaction is I think unacceptably high. This is one where we have to get our act together.
Congress is struggling these days -- there’s no question about that. And if there is going to be one issue that folks can unite behind, I can’t think of a better one than around education and educating our way to a better economy. So for all the past bitterness or fighting or whatever it might be, why not come together and do that right thing for the country? And I think this is a great opportunity for folks on both sides to do that.
Q And then, have you already started -- sorry -- have you already started I guess before this announcement today going to the Hill and talking with lawmakers?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: We’ve talked to many, many lawmakers. I’ve testified two or three times over the past couple of weeks. I’m testifying again next week. And this has been at the heart of what we’re talking about. And again, I think people see both the opportunity to do the right thing and the huge cost of inaction.
Q You’re talking about everything from the family side, paying whatever the colleges ask. What are you doing to rein in the dramatic rise in tuition?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: So a couple of thoughts there. One big thing is we have proposed in the President’s budget a billion-dollar Race to the Top for Higher Education that we have put money behind, again, not just in those states that continue to invest and in those institutions, those colleges -- it would do two things: keep their cost down, and also create a culture around college completion. It can’t just be around access; it’s got to be around completion.
The other big piece I think has been the lack of transparency. I think young people and families are making these very complicated decisions, which have been very hard to figure out what this university’s financial aid package is versus this university’s. So we’re working to create much greater transparency. Young people want a great education, but they want value for their money as well.
So we’ll put strong incentives out there, also move some resources potentially more towards those universities who are doing things right and away from those that aren’t. And again, we have the best system of higher education in the world. We have 6,000 options -- two-year, four-year, public, private, big, small, whatever it might be. We want young people to make the right choice for them.
MR. CARNEY: Thank you, Secretary Duncan. Thank you all for your questions.
Separate from the presentation that Secretary Duncan just gave, I do not have anything else to begin with, so I’ll go straight to questions from Julie, the Associated Press.
Q Thank you. I just wanted to follow up on Secretary Clinton’s remarks yesterday at the "Friends of Syria" meeting, which were happening during the briefing. She essentially called for tougher U.N. Security Council action on Syria, but also acknowledged the likelihood that anything put forward to the Security Council would be vetoed. So I’m wondering if there’s a concern in the administration that continuing to focus on Security Council action, which seems likely to be vetoed, is wasting time as the rebels seem to be losing strength in this area.
MR. CARNEY: Well, a couple things. We remain horrified by the reports of significant violations of the ceasefire by the Assad regime. Yet again, this regime has failed to keep its word, has failed to, thus far, live up to the obligations it made to honor the Annan plan.
Secondly, we are in consultation with Security Council members about next steps. It is absolutely true, and we bemoaned the fact at the time, that an earlier resolution at the Security Council was vetoed by the Russians and the Chinese. And we made clear our displeasure over that, and we made clear our feeling that -- and a feeling that was broadly shared around the world -- that it was an historic mistake to side with the Assad regime, a regime that was, at the time and to this day, brutally killing its own people. I think in the interim, the Assad regime's behavior has become all the more clear.
I don’t want to get ahead of anything the Security Council might do, the conversations and deliberations that will take place there, but it is worth noting that we did have unified support around the Annan plan and we do have that support on the Security Council. And I think there is greater acknowledgment around the globe as well as within the United Nations and the Security Council of the appalling behavior by the regime.
Q Do you think that that increases the likelihood that a tougher --
MR. CARNEY: I wouldn’t want to speculate about what next steps might look like. We obviously remain supportive of the Annan plan. We remain supportive of the steps that are being taken with monitors. But we are also clear-eyed about the failure of the Assad regime to live up to its obligations so far, and we will, of course, engage with the Security Council and, broadly, with members of the “Friends of Syria” on next steps as necessary.
Q Is the administration's position still that Assad's demise is inevitable? Or are you considering options that would take into account Assad staying in power?
MR. CARNEY: We still believe that Assad's tenure, if you will, will come to an end. It is obviously difficult to put a timeframe on that, an end date on that. But he has utterly lost credibility with his own people, credibility with the nations and people of the region, credibility with the nations of the world, credibility with international organizations and regional organizations. His capacity to unflinchingly unleash brutality against his own people in order to sustain his own rule has certainly prolonged his stay in power, but it will not last forever.
Q Is any consideration being given to naming a special outside counsel for the Secret Service scandal, or is that an option that's being ruled out?
MR. CARNEY: That is the first I've heard that raised. I know of no consideration of that nature.
Q Now that a couple of the names of a couple of the supervisor agents have come to light, can you say at least whether -- does the President personally know either of those agents?
MR. CARNEY: I am not aware that he does. I don't know that he doesn't. I'm not even familiar with the names, although I understand some names have been published.
The President has spoken about this, as you know, when he was asked in Colombia on Sunday. He wants the investigation that the Secret Service is leading to come to completion. Once that completion is reached, if the result is that the allegations that have been broadly reported turn out to be true, he will be angry about it, as he made clear in Colombia. The reason for that is that, as he said then, every member of the United States government who travels to a foreign country on a presidential trip or a trip by a Cabinet member or the Vice President is representing his or her country and every American in this country, and therefore should conduct themselves appropriately at all times.
But as I said yesterday and I've said previously, the President does not want to, and I certainly don't want to, get ahead of the conclusions of the investigation, make broader judgments while the investigation is still underway.
Q The director at Secret Service, in a meeting with congressional investigators, voiced concern that these prostitutes were in a room or rooms that had confidential, secure -- security information. I'm wondering, have steps been taken to make sure that if they were, travel plans or whatever may have been on those computers or papers were no longer relevant?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I'll say two things: One, I am certainly not privy to conversations the director of the Secret Service may have had with members of Congress, or the conversations that those members might have had with you about their conversations with the director. I would say that the investigation is ongoing. Specifics like that are not things that I'm in a position to answer questions on at this time. And matters of security in general, presidential security, are handled by the Secret Service and are generally not things that we discuss for reasons of security.
But I understand the question and I understand at least hypothetically what a concern like that would be and why it might exist. But I would ask you to patiently wait for the conclusions of the investigation before either the Secret Service or the White House addresses those kinds of questions.
Q Jay, as I’m sure you know, it’s been reported I think by The Washington Post, to begin with, that one of the agents in question or one of the officials from the Secret Service in question had on his public Facebook page a picture of him with Governor Palin, with an inappropriate remark about checking her out. This was before the incident this picture had been posted. Does that cause the President or anybody in the White House to question whether or not Director Sullivan’s oversight was sufficient? It would seem that that would not be professional either and it would cause -- it might cause somebody to question whether or not Sullivan was engaging in enough oversight and setting the right tone when it came to the behavior of his agents and officers.
MR. CARNEY: Well, I did see the report that you mentioned. But that represents the entirety of my knowledge about it. I have not had any conversations with the President or others here about that specific report that I assume happened even prior to President Obama taking office.
Stepping back, the broader question of behavior or culture of the institution I think is something that I’m not prepared to address at this time while this investigation into this specific matter and in this case, this specific person, is ongoing. Again, once the investigation is concluded, I’m sure that the Secret Service will have more to say about it, and we may as well.
Q Would information like that cause the President, in any way, to question whether his confidence in Director Sullivan may be misplaced?
MR. CARNEY: Well, again, I haven’t had a conversation with the President about this specific Facebook entry or even this agent that you referenced. The two things I would say is that the Secret Service has stated quite clearly, and the President believes, that his security and the overall security of the trip was never compromised in Colombia. He has great faith in, broadly speaking, the Secret Service men and women who protect him and his family, protect the Vice President and members of the traveling staff, protect the grounds here.
Right now we want to wait for the conclusion of the investigation into this specific incident before we look more broadly at -- if that's necessary -- more broadly at some of the issues of culture or security.
But the President does, as I’ve said before, have faith in the Secret Service, and high regard for the agency and the job that they do protecting him, his family, protecting his predecessors. It is an enormously difficult job, as you can imagine. It involves putting your life on the line regularly, being willing to sacrifice yourself for the sake not just of an individual but for the trauma that any kind of harm that might come to a President would cause a nation. That's a huge responsibility. And this incident, while it is obviously under investigation and the allegations that are out there are very concerning, it is also important not to forget what the job that the men and women of the Secret Service do on a regular basis for Presidents of both parties.
Q One last question, Jay. Yesterday when Ann asked you whether the White House was confident that nobody who was employed by the White House was engaged in any similar activities, you said something along the lines of you weren’t aware of any evidence. Has anybody in the White House looked into whether any of the traveling staff or the advance staff or anyone at all had anything to do with any of this?
MR. CARNEY: Well, when I got that question yesterday, it was the first time I had heard anything like that. I have no reason to believe -- I do not know otherwise that this did not involve anything but the agents and the military personnel. We are in regular conversation with -- senior members of the White House staff are in conversation with the Secret Service, getting briefed on the progress of their investigation. I really don’t have anything more for you on that.
Q But that’s the Secret Service investigation of the Secret Service. I'm wondering if anybody in the White House has just made sure that none of this was done by anybody employed by the White House.
MR. CARNEY: Not that I'm aware of. I am not -- my answer is the same as it was yesterday.
Q Some Republicans, including Senator Sessions and Governor Palin, have begun to suggest that this incident, coming on the heels of the report about the GSA party in Las Vegas and the breakdown of command in Afghanistan where soldiers were displaying severed limbs, suggests, in their words, a "breakdown in --"
MR. CARNEY: In whose words?
Q Senator Sessions and Governor Palin, among others -- a "breakdown in --"
MR. CARNEY: In case you didn’t hear that, that was Senator Sessions and Governor Palin. (Laughter.)
Q -- "in White House oversight of the federal agencies." What's your response?
MR. CARNEY: We've been at war in Afghanistan for 10 years. We were at war in Iraq for nearly nine, I believe. Incidents that have been of great concern have happened in those war zones on, unfortunately, numerous occasions over the numbers of years that our forces have been at war there.
The incident that you referred to is terrible. It does not represent the standards of the U.S. military or the conduct with which the overwhelming majority of American men and women in Afghanistan, and before that, in Iraq, conduct themselves.
Any assertion by those politicians that you mentioned should be -- of the nature that you mentioned should be valued at the cost that you paid for it. It is preposterous to politicize the Secret Service, to politicize the behavior of the terrible conduct of some soldiers in Afghanistan in a war that’s been going on for 10 years.
Q What they’re doing is trying to criticize the President’s leadership.
MR. CARNEY: What they’re doing is trying to turn these incidents -- one that’s still under investigation -- into political advantage. And obviously you recognize that; everyone here recognizes that. I think on the face of it it’s a ridiculous assertion that trivializes both the very serious nature of that endeavor that our military has engaged in in Afghanistan, and the very serious nature both of the work that the Secret Service does, the apolitical nature of the institution, and the seriousness of the investigation underway with regard to the Secret Service and the military and the incident in Colombia.
Q Just to follow quickly on Jake’s question about the White House advance staff. Is there no process -- I mean, there’s not a concern of saying, hey --
MR. CARNEY: Here’s what I’m going to do --
Q -- no, I mean, I can tell you what our own news organization --
MR. CARNEY: -- what I’m not going to do is answer questions about random rumors that --
Q It’s not just about rumors. Has there been some sort of just double-checking to make sure White House advance staff weren’t involved in this business?
MR. CARNEY: We are -- from the beginning, from the moment that this was made public and an investigation was launched, we have been in regular touch with the Secret Service and obviously with the Pentagon about this incident. And I’m sure the discussion and the briefing covers a variety of subjects, a variety of both facts and rumors. What I’m not going to do, as I said yesterday, is give a play-by-play or speculate about every rumor that you may have heard from either anonymous sources or just the Internet. So I just don’t have anything more for you on the investigation itself.
Q But it could be sort of an internal investigation, if you will, and you don’t know it or you’re not sharing?
MR. CARNEY: I have no reason, as I said yesterday, to believe that there is a need for that. I just -- I’m not going to talk speculatively about where this investigation is going.
Q We know that Mark Sullivan has been briefing any member of Congress that has asked for one. Who’s he briefing here at the White House? When you say senior officials, can you elaborate?
MR. CARNEY: He has had conversations with the, I believe, the Chief of Staff, with Deputy Chief of Staff, and maybe others. And there’s obviously been --
Q Has the President asked --
MR. CARNEY: -- communications with -- let me finish this part. There may be communications at other -- with other individuals, with other members of the Secret Service. In fact, I’m sure there are -- not just with the director. And they are -- it is a regular conversation so that the White House can be kept abreast of the investigation and steps that are being taken.
The President has not had a conversation with Director Sullivan. I wouldn’t rule out that he will. I'm sure he will be briefed at some point by the Director about the investigation and where it stands and what we know about what happened.
Q And the three universities that were picked next week, can you explain the criteria of why the universities --
MR. CARNEY: I would just point you to --
Q -- North Carolina, Colorado and Iowa were picked?
MR. CARNEY: I would just point you to what the Secretary said. And I guess we can go back to the conversation -- how many -- you would know probably quicker than anybody else in this room, what was the margin in Iowa in 2008?
Q It was a large margin, sure.
MR. CARNEY: Substantial, right?
Q And you're behind now --
MR. CARNEY: So any state – actually, not the one I saw most recently. But any state --
Q But you're not following --
MR. CARNEY: Any state by which we won by that margin, should we not travel there?
Q I guess what I'd ask is not the University of Texas --
MR. CARNEY: Great universities, great parts of the country. Also, as you know, Chuck --
Q Well, I mean --
MR. CARNEY: Let me just finish. As you know, Chuck, there are a lot of things that go into decisions about travel. It is obviously easier to travel only half the country than the entire length of the country. I would point out, as I did yesterday, that the President was recently delivering remarks in Oklahoma, and while hope springs eternal, I am not prepared at this moment to call that a battleground state. He gave a major speech late last year -- I misspoke, I said Nebraska yesterday -- it was Kansas, as you know. Again, in either case, although Nebraska apparently -- there was the Omaha bifurcation in 2008 -- generally not viewed as up for grabs.
Q Where the First Lady is traveling next week --
MR. CARNEY: Generally not perceived to be up for grabs. But Kansas -- are you giving us Kansas?
MR. CARNEY: Is it in your battleground list? (Laughter.)
Q No, but in all seriousness, all of his travel next week is to three battleground states. They're all official visits. You say -- it feeds the cynicism that this is all sort of one entity here. Is it -- do you -- I mean, would -- Jay Carney the journalist would be asking the same questions.
MR. CARNEY: The issue that this concerns the President's trip next week, education, is -- as Secretary Duncan, who made clear he does not give a rip about politics, does not believe that education should be a political or partisan issue, and largely unnoted by NBC and other major outlets represented in this room, has not by and large been a partisan issue in this administration -- is what the President is going to be talking about, and the unbelievably important reality that on July 1st, rates for student loans are going to double if we don't take action.
That is a policy issue that will matter greatly to the students of the very large universities the President will be visiting.
To suggest -- again, it is simply not something we accept that the President should not be able to travel all around the country, should not be able to travel to talk about his agenda with the American people that he represents. And if you took seriously all the maps that show states that are battleground states, and therefore would be somehow inappropriate for a incumbent President to visit in a reelection year, he would be severely restricting his ability to go to great big parts of the --
Q But he keeps going back to the same places. Knoller can tell you.
MR. CARNEY: -- big parts of the country. So I'm just going to give you guys this answer because it's a fact. And I would point -- Jake and I were talking about this yesterday -- when this story first came out, the Wall Street Journal ran this great graphic about how President Obama had traveled to more battleground states at this stage in the reelection cycle than his predecessor. But what they left out was that they did not consider in 2004 Virginia to be a battleground state. It was solid Republican. But they did consider it for President Obama because he won it against all expectations, right?
And as you know, Chuck, you’ve been around long enough, every President goes to Virginia all the time because it’s an easy way to get out of Washington and get beyond the Beltway and get out into the country. So there’s a lot of ways to make a lot more out of this than there is --
Q I mean, does that mean he has no campaign events in North Carolina, Colorado or Iowa next week?
MR. CARNEY: I don't have the full schedule, but these are official events where he’s going to talk about the student loan issues.
Q Jay, a different subject, if I may. The first is --
MR. CARNEY: You sure you don't want to talk about that some more?
Q -- the election in France this weekend. I was wondering if the White House was closely monitoring this election. And are you confident on the stability of the working relationship with Paris, whoever ends up winning?
MR. CARNEY: Well, we’re certainly monitoring it in the sense that we follow the news, and France is a great, great ally of the United States and will continue to be so.
Q May I follow up?
MR. CARNEY: Certainly.
Q What does the President hope will be achieved --
MR. CARNEY: Does SkyNews take issue with that? The U.S. -- the relationship between the U.S. and France? (Laughter.)
Q We’re happy you opened this up, Jay.
MR. CARNEY: Okay.
Q We have 90 million subscribers worldwide that are very interested in what goes on in this White House, especially.
MR. CARNEY: Okay, sure.
Q And one of the questions I have from SkyNews is, what does the President hope will be achieved in solving the eurozone crisis as the IMF-World Bank meetings come to an end here in Washington this weekend?
MR. CARNEY: Well, they're obviously looking at the eurozone crisis at the IMF. The measures that European governments are taking with regard to the eurozone crisis obviously extend beyond the IMF.
The IMF has an important role to play, as we've always said. It is an adjunct role, it is not a principal role. European governments and banks are taking the lead in that. U.S. contributions to the IMF will not be raised and will remain where they are. But the IMF does have an important role to play. And the Europeans have taken some important steps -- very important steps -- in terms of building a firewall, actions the ECB has taken, reforms undertaken in Greece and Italy.
But there's more to be done. And we are always available and extremely engaged with our European allies on this issue -- Secretary Geithner, in particular, Lael Brainard, also at the Treasury Department, and others -- very engaged with our European allies in providing whatever counsel we can to help them deal with this significant challenge.
Q Thank you, Jay.
MR. CARNEY: Wendell.
Q What does the GSA spending abuses say about the Vice President's effort to crack down on waste in government spending?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I would say two things, Wendell. I appreciate the question. First, with regards to conference spending in particular, which is the matter of concern with the GSA that so outraged the President and led to the actions that have taken place there -- first of all, in September of 2011, the President's Office of Management and Budget directed all agency heads to conduct a thorough review of how they are spending taxpayer dollars on conferences. Pending that review, conference-related activities and expenses were not permitted to go forward without signoff by the deputy secretary or an equivalent chief operating officer for each agency.
Each agency has established tough internal control and has certified those controls are now in place. Federal agencies have identified and are currently executing on plans to achieve traveling conference cost savings that total nearly $1.2 billion as a result of the President's executive order. To date, they have achieved over $280 million in reduced costs in the first quarter of fiscal year 2012, compared to the same period of time in fiscal year 2010.
Broadly, the administration's efforts to streamline federal spending on conferences is a part of the President's broader campaign to cut waste initiative, which is led, as you noted, by the Vice President, and which has already reduced costs by tens of billions of dollars by eliminating inefficient or unnecessary spending. We've worked to cut excess real estate costs by $1.5 billion; realized over $1.4 billion in cost reductions by slashing spending in administrative areas such as travel, fleet and printing; avoided $4 billion in costs by turning around, downsizing, or eliminating IT projects that were over budget or behind schedule; saved millions in production costs by halting the minting of dollar coins that are not needed -- and I’m sorry if you’re a collector -- prevented $20 billion in improper payments, and put an end to skyrocketing contracting costs, exceeding the President’s goal to reduce contract spending by $40 billion.
I’m so glad you asked, because the record is quite impressive.
Q You were looking for that one. On another matter, there's another bit of legislation tied to the Keystone pipeline. The President --
MR. CARNEY: You mean the Keystone pipeline is yet again tied in a non-germane way to another piece of legislation? Yes.
Q If that’s the way you want to look at it. Is there a veto threat out that --
MR. CARNEY: I think there’s no other way to look at it. Look, we -- I don’t know if we have a SAP -- we do. Yes, we do. But let’s be clear. What Congress is asking -- in this highly politicized, highly partisan way, attaching a provision on the Keystone pipeline to a piece of legislation that has nothing to do with it, is basically asking -- and the American people should be aware of this. The United States Congress -- very important body, takes American security and sovereignty very seriously -- or should -- is saying that we will, in advance, blind, approve a pipeline, a proposal for which does not exist -- but we’ll approve it anyway -- a foreign pipeline built by a foreign company emanating from foreign territory to cross U.S. borders.
Now, we love the Canadians. They are very close allies. But there is a process in place for a reason, that is run through the State Department that requires this kind of project, because it crosses U.S. border with a foreign country, to be reviewed and approved by the State Department in a very deliberate way.
When this company -- if this company and when this company submits a new route, a new proposal for the route of this pipeline, it will absolutely be given unbiased and appropriate consideration in the proper way, in the way that it’s been done for decades under administrations of both parties, and decided in the manner that it is always meant to be decided.
And partisan efforts to attach it to something and basically to say to the American people it doesn’t matter, even though it’s coming from a foreign country, even though it’s built by a foreign company and it’s crossing our borders, let’s approve it in advance -- that’s unacceptable to this President.
And I would remind you that we are only in this situation because the Congress did this once before already. And we only had concerns originally and delayed the process because, or at least in part because of concerns raised about the original pipeline route by the governor of Nebraska, who is a member of the very same party as those who support this noxious amendment.
Q On Keystone, by obviously keeping his options open on whether he ultimately will okay --
MR. CARNEY: He cannot okay and the State Department cannot okay --
Q I understand. In terms of --
MR. CARNEY: -- a pipeline proposal that does not exist.
MR. CARNEY: It would be preemptively sacrificing American sovereignty.
Q Okay. But in terms -- sure.
MR. CARNEY: Sure.
Q He hasn’t indicated any willingness aside from you can’t okay a permit -- I’m not talking about the permit, I'm --
MR. CARNEY: That doesn’t exist.
Q -- talking about rhetoric. He’s upset a number of groups from big oil to environmentalists, parts of labor, Democrats on both sides of the issue, Canada.
MR. CARNEY: Are you making my case about why he’s just doing the right thing?
Q But it seems like the only folks who are happy with it are Republicans because they can keep pounding him on the issue. Has it been a detriment to President Obama --
MR. CARNEY: Well, I will leave it --
Q -- this issue? Has this been a detriment?
MR. CARNEY: I will leave it to commentators, reporters and others, historians, eventually, to decide that. What I know is that at the time that the delay was announced because of the need to find an alternate route, it was done because there were great concerns about the proposed route and the aquifer in Nebraska.
Q Which have been assuaged.
MR. CARNEY: Not at the time.
Q -- a route now.
MR. CARNEY: There is no -- what route?
Q The route that was submitted to Nebraska yesterday, it goes around the aquifer.
MR. CARNEY: Oh, well, but you just said -- I’m sorry, where has it been submitted?
Q Yes, like you said yesterday.
MR. CARNEY: Nebraska. Not to the U.S. State Department, which is where it has to be reviewed. And maybe that will be submitted very soon. And once it is, a process will begin in accordance with existing precedent -- decades of precedent, for administrations of both parties -- and it will be reviewed appropriately.
But the route was changed for no small -- how do I say -- I’m getting tired here -- but in large part because the Republican governor of Nebraska asked it to be changed, or asked it not to go through the aquifer there and threaten potentially the water supply of that state.
So does it hurt us politically? I just don’t know. I’m not a keen enough analyst to assess that. What I do know is this is the kind of thing that has to be judged on its merits. As the President said in Cushing, Oklahoma, the company is absolutely welcome to submit a new pipeline proposal and the process will begin again.
Q On Syria, it seems the Annan plan right now isn’t working in terms of a ceasefire or pulling back troops. There are some reports that you’re working on a plan B. There are some reports there is no plan B. So which is it?
MR. CARNEY: As I said earlier when I was asked about Syria and the Secretary of State’s remarks, we are very concerned about the blatant failure of the Assad regime to fulfill its obligations under the Annan plan, the fact that the ceasefire is clearly not holding, is far from complete. And we will -- if it does not succeed, if there is not a change in behavior by the Assad regime, if the ceasefire does not take place and the other points of the plan are not fulfilled, we will obviously continue to consult with our allies and partners as well as other members of the U.N. Security Council about next steps.
Q So there is no plan B?
MR. CARNEY: Well, no, I didn’t say --
Q You will continue to consult --
MR. CARNEY: We’re continuing to consult and I’m sure that there --
Q You will continue to consult for next steps sounds like then there will be a plan B, which would mean there isn’t a plan B right at this moment.
MR. CARNEY: It means that there is no need to announce -- we are not prepared to announce an additional step or a new step to be taken either by the United States, by "Friends of Syria," or the United Nations Security Council at this time. But you can be sure that we are discussing next steps and options with our allies and partners.
Last one. Margaret.
Q Have you got a chance to see the latest from the Congressional Budget Office --
MR. CARNEY: I usually wait patiently for the latest, but I haven’t seen it.
Q I want to ask you about it, but I haven’t had a chance to read the whole thing myself. As we’ve been sitting here --
MR. CARNEY: This question is going nowhere, Margaret. (Laughter.)
Q Well, what it’s saying --
MR. CARNEY: I haven’t seen it. You haven’t seen it. (Laughter.)
Q Well, what it’s saying is that the President’s proposed budget would reduce economic output by some percentage and the Speaker’s office is reacting to it and saying --
MR. CARNEY: I haven’t seen it. I have not heard this.
Q Do you expect you’d make any reaction later today?
MR. CARNEY: Let me see what it is you’re referring to. I’ll check my inbox.
Q The week ahead?
MR. CARNEY: Oh, bless you. (Laughter.)
The schedule for the week of April 23rd, 2012 -- on Monday, at a time when Americans are engaging in Holocaust Days of Remembrance, President Obama will deliver remarks at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. The President will also tour the museum with, and be introduced by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.
On Tuesday morning, the President will honor the 2012 National Teacher of the Year and finalists at the White House, thanking them for their hard work and dedication each and every day in the classroom.
On Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday, the President will travel to North Carolina, Colorado, and Iowa, to launch an effort to get Congress to prevent interest rates on student loans from doubling in July.
On Tuesday, the President will visit the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Also on Tuesday, the President will host an on-the-record conference call with college and university student journalists.
On Wednesday, the President will visit the University of Iowa. At the event, he will speak with students about the critical need for Congress to act.
On Thursday, the President will attend meetings at the White House. And on Friday, the President and First Lady will meet with troops, veterans, and military families at Fort Stewart in Hinesville, Georgia.
Thank you all very much. I hope you have a great weekend.
1:30 P.M. EDT