DeVos battles lawmakers in contentious hearing
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos 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.
She said the Education Department budget request she was there to defend was out of date, and repeatedly stated that her department followed federal statute as necessary.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 Lee (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 Clark (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.
This DeVos hearing was rough. pic.twitter.com/022kXEk2kx
— Evan McMurry (@evanmcmurry) March 20, 2018
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 Pocan (D-Wis.) asked her what she thinks, she deferred to President Trump’s position, until finally saying that she had not yet come to a conclusion on the matter.
Rep. Nita Lowey (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 DeLauro (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 Frelinghuysen (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 Ross.
“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 Cole (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.
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