DeVos battles lawmakers in contentious hearing

Education Secretary Betsy DeVosElizabeth (Betsy) Dee DeVosFree college won't revive the liberal arts Klobuchar rolls out seven-figure ad buy in Nevada Five things to watch in Trump's budget proposal MORE struggled to answer tough questions in a congressional hearing Tuesday, resulting in numerous tense back-and-forths with Democrats and a few quiet rebukes from Republican committee members.

Democrats accused DeVos of lacking leadership as she repeatedly failed to provide specific answers on her positions on school gun violence, racial disparities, LGBT rights and student loan oversight.

DeVos frequently demurred, telling lawmakers at a hearing of the House Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services that Congress, and not the administration, had the responsibility for making certain policy decisions.

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She said the Education Department budget request she was there to defend was out of date, and repeatedly stated that her department followed federal statute as necessary.

Rep. Barbara LeeBarbara Jean LeeCalifornia lawmakers mark Day of Remembrance for Japanese internment Senior black Democrats urge party chairman to take responsibility for Iowa Lawmakers with first-hand experience using food stamps call on Trump not to cut program MORE (D-Calif.) questioned DeVos on racial issues, demanding to know why she was reviewing policies meant to crack down on racial bias in school discipline.

“For the same infraction, black and brown students are disciplined and expelled at a much higher rate. That’s what you call racial bias and racism,” Lee said, citing Department of Education Data. 

During two rounds of questioning on the issue, Lee was unsatisfied with DeVos’s answers that all regulations were under review and that she shared the view that all students should be treated equally. 

When DeVos blamed the lack of Senate-confirmed staff on her failure to respond to a June letter from Lee on the matter, Lee responded: “Madam Secretary, you just don’t care much about civil rights of black and brown children. This is horrible.”

In another fiery back-and-forth, Rep. Katherine ClarkKatherine Marlea ClarkJeffries: Trump budget is a 'declaration of war on the American dream' Senate acquits Trump, ending impeachment saga Sanders, Warren battle for progressive endorsements MORE (D-Mass.) pressed DeVos nearly a dozen times to provide a clear answer on whether she would ensure that private schools receiving public funds through voucher-style programs would be forced to implement LGBT protections.

“Where federal dollars flow, federal law must be adhered to,” DeVos said over and over, as Clark demanded a simple yes-no response. 

After nearly two minutes of back and forth, DeVos finally conceded that yes, adhering to federal law meant insisting on adherence to federal LGBT protections. 

When it came to guns, DeVos would not reveal her own position on raising the minimum age for arms purchase. In each of three instances that Rep. Mark PocanMark William PocanDemocrats call on Pompeo to restore funding to Gaza USDA takes heat as Democrats seek probe into trade aid 2020 Democratic hopefuls focus on Iowa while making final pitches MORE (D-Wis.) asked her what she thinks, she deferred to President TrumpDonald John TrumpSchiff blasts Trump for making 'false claims' about Russia intel: 'You've betrayed America. Again.' Poll: Sanders leads 2020 Democratic field with 28 percent, followed by Warren and Biden More than 6 in 10 expect Trump to be reelected: poll MORE’s position, until finally saying that she had not yet come to a conclusion on the matter.

Rep. Nita LoweyNita Sue LoweyThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Roger Stone gets over three years in prison; Brutal night for Bloomberg Three members of Congress endorse Bloomberg after raucous debate Overnight Defense: Senate votes to rein in Trump war powers on Iran | Pentagon shifting .8B to border wall | US, Taliban negotiate seven-day 'reduction in violence' MORE (D-N.Y.), the ranking member on the Appropriations committee, engaged in a lengthy exchange with DeVos about whether states or the federal government had the responsibility to provide parents with information about the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal program.

“IDEA is a federal law, and where federal funds are involved in states, the federal government has a role. But this is a matter for states,” DeVos said at one point during the exchange.

“I don’t understand this,” Lowey said in one of her many attempts to clarify the situation. “You’re saying it’s up the to states. You don’t have any leadership role in presenting the facts? I just want to make sure I understand what you’re saying.”

After nearly eight minutes of confusion, Lowey relented.

“Why don’t we follow up at another time?” she offered. 

At one point, Rep. Rosa DeLauroRosa Luisa DeLauroOn The Money: Deficit spikes 25 percent through January | Mnuchin declines to say why Trump pulled Treasury nominee who oversaw Roger Stone case | Lawmakers trade insults over Trump budget cuts Lawmakers trade insults over Trump budget cuts USDA takes heat as Democrats seek probe into trade aid MORE (D-Conn.), the ranking member on the committee, raised her voice and pointed her finger accusatorially at DeVos as she demanded clarity on whether the Education Department was withdrawing consumer protections for student loans.

The Republican members of the committee were less aggressive, but several also pointedly critiqued DeVos and the Trump administration’s education proposals.

Rep. Rodney FrelinghuysenRodney Procter FrelinghuysenEx-Rep. Frelinghuysen joins law and lobby firm The 31 Trump districts that will determine the next House majority Top House GOP appropriations staffer moves to lobbying shop MORE (R-N.J.), the retiring chairman of the Appropriations Committee, chastised DeVos for failing to engage properly with congressional funders. 

“It’s hard to believe that people have been on the job for this long and they don’t have staff that are understanding how the system works,” he said, adding that the criticism was respectful, directed at DeVos’s staff, and echoed a critique he made earlier in the day to Commerce Secretary Wilbur RossWilbur Louis Ross2020 census to run ads on 'Premio lo Nuestro' Can the US slap tariffs on auto imports? Not anymore On The Money: Slowing economy complicates 2020 message for Trump | Tech confronts growing impact of coronavirus | Manufacturing rises after five-month contraction MORE.

“I think it’s important for members who pay the bill to meet with the secretaries before they come before the committee,” he added.

Rep. Tom ColeThomas (Tom) Jeffrey ColeTrump's best week ever? McCarthy raises over million in Q4 for House GOP GOP leader warns lawmakers on fundraising: 'Getting our ass kicked' MORE (R-Okla.), the labor subcommittee chairman, demanded to know why the administration was pulling funding support for areas that have large amounts of federal land, such as military bases and Native American tribes. Those places, he noted, don’t contribute to the state and local taxes that largely fund schools. 

“I am concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected,” Cole said. 

DeVos called on an associate from her department to provide a more detailed answer in her stead. 

The testimony comes in the aftermath of a widely-panned “60 Minutes” interview last week, in which DeVos had difficulty answering pointed questions about her policy.