DeVos battles lawmakers in contentious hearing

Education Secretary Betsy DeVosElizabeth (Betsy) Dee DeVosDems push back on using federal funds to arm teachers Kavanaugh’s fate rests with Sen. Collins Colleges, universities seeing rise in sexual assault claims, lawsuits 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She said the Education Department budget request she was there to defend was out of date, and repeatedly stated that her department followed federal statute as necessary.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 LeeRussia probe accelerates political prospects for House Intel Dems Overnight Defense: Officials rush to deny writing anonymous op-ed | Lawmakers offer measure on naming NATO headquarters after McCain | US, India sign deal on sharing intel Dems plan resolution to withdraw US forces from Yemen civil war 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 ClarkAguilar launches bid for Democratic leadership position The farm bill gives Congress a chance to act on the Pet and Women Safety (PAWS) Act Michigan lawmaker wants seat for Midwest at Dem leadership table 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 PocanBlue wave poses governing risks for Dems Trump Jr., Dem congressman spar over Ellison's association with Farrakhan Dems seek ways to block Trump support for Saudi-led coalition in Yemen MORE (D-Wis.) asked her what she thinks, she deferred to President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump: Dems playing destructive 'con game' with Kavanaugh Several Yale Law classmates who backed Kavanaugh call for misconduct investigation Freedom Caucus calls on Rosenstein to testify or resign MORE’s position, until finally saying that she had not yet come to a conclusion on the matter.

Rep. Nita LoweyNita Sue LoweyCongress sends first spending package to Trump in push to avert shutdown The stakes are sky-high for the pro-life cause in the upcoming midterms Dems urge Mattis to reject using 0M for border wall 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 DeLauroHealth advocates decry funding transfer over migrant children Overnight Health Care: HHS diverts funds to pay for detaining migrant children | Health officials defend transfers | Lawmakers consider easing drug company costs in opioids deal Congress reaches deal to fund government through Dec. 7, preventing shutdown 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 FrelinghuysenBiden postpones campaign visit for Stacey Abrams: report Trump endorses Republican candidate in key NJ House race On The Money: Lawmakers get deal to avoid shutdown | House panel approves 'tax cuts 2.0' bill | Jobless claims hold steady near 49-year low 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 RossSenior official: Trump administration putting ‘a knife to China’s neck’ with tariffs Trump team wildly underestimated the costs of tariffs The hot race for 5G will change the world we know now 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 ColeConservatives left frustrated as Congress passes big spending bills Overnight Health Care: House GOP blocks Trump-backed drug pricing provision | Maryland sues to protect ObamaCare | Insurers offer help to hurricane-impacted areas House GOP blocks Trump-supported drug pricing provision from spending bill 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.