Washington confirmation hearings are both ritual and theatre. Behind the curtains are displays of regard that senators and would-be cabinet secretaries have to show towards each other is a useful democratic exercise. To be required to plead before one’s political opponents is a crash course in respecting the norms of peaceful political combat in the service of accountability.
HAVE NOT CONFORMED
Despite dazzling wealth and shocking reputations, President Trump’s cabinet of generals and plutocrats has not entirely failed to conform to those norms. In two rounds of questioning last week, James Mattis, up for Secretary of Defense, gave some faint hope that he will not live up to the reputation of his nickname, Mad Dog Mattis. But he was confirmed on Inauguration Day.
In his three rounds of questioning, Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson fared worse, dodging questions and maybe even perjuring himself.
COME UP SHORT
But even by the very low standards of the Trump crowd, billionaire Betsy DeVos, the president’s choice for Secretary of Education, came up short in her Capitol Hill appearance on Tuesday evening. While Republican supporters (and fake Democrat Joe Leiberman) praised her as a bold defender and reformer of “school choice,” her Democratic interrogators recorded questions such her command of law and policy, both of which look very weak, and her political donations, which are legion.
When Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) asked her about the debate among education policymakers about whether standardized testing should seek to measure student “proficiency” or “growth,” DeVos had no clue. Her answer indicated she had little if any understanding of the issue, much less a position.
When Senator Robert Casey (D-Penn.) asked if she would support the department’s 2011 guidance for colleges and universities about how to handle sexual assault cases, DeVos balked, saying that would be “premature.”
Asked by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) if guns have any place in American schools, DeVos replied that she had visited a rural school in Wyoming that had a fence to keep out grizzly bears and expressed hope that the school had a gun. In light of the 210 school shootings in America since 2013, DeVos’ answer was perky at best. Senator Murphy, whose voters lost their children at Sandy Hook, said concisely, “I look forward to you coming to Connecticut to talk about guns in schools.”
When Senator Elizabeth Warren asked DeVos if she or her children had ever attended a public school, taught in public school or applied for a student loan, DeVos’ answers were no, no and no. DeVos hurried to add she had once mentored students in a public school. That was exactly the only public school experience the woman who wants to preside over governmental education policy could cite: a part-time volunteer position.
DeVos seemed to dissemble when Senator Hassan (D-New Hampshire) asked what she, as a board member of the Edgar and Elsie Prince Foundation, thought of the foundation’s $10 million in donations to Focus on the Family, the conservative evangelical group. DeVos said she was not a member of the board and that her mother made all the decisions. Jeremy Scahill of The Intercept tweeted out a copy of an IRS filing showing that DeVos served as vice president of the Foundation. In a follow-up question, DeVos said that the filing was a “clerical error.” Scahill pointed out the alleged clerical error had been repeated for several years.
Is this a good choice for Secretary of Education?