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Washington confirmation hearings are both theater and ritual. Behind the ostentatious displays of deference that senators and would-be cabinet secretaries must display toward each other is a useful democratic exercise. To be forced to grovel before one's political adversaries is a crash course in respecting the norms of peaceful political combat in service of accountability.
Despite garish wealth and ghastly reputations, Donald 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. In his three rounds of questioning, Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson fared worse, evading questions and maybe even perjuring himself.
But even by the low standards of the Trump crowd, billionaire Betsy DeVos, the president-elect's choice for Secretary of Education, came up short in her Capitol Hill appearance Tuesday evening. While Republican supporters (and the unctuous faux Democrat Joe Leiberman) lauded her as a bold reformer and defender of "school choice," her Democratic interrogators scored with questions about her command of law and policy, both of which seemed 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 "profiiency" or "growth," DeVos was clueless. Her answer indicated she had no 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's answer was flippant at best. Senator Murphy, whose constituents lost their children at Sandy Hook, said tersely, "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's answers were no, no and no. DeVos hastened to add she had once mentored students in a public school. That was literally 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 followup question, DeVos said that the filing was a "clerical error." Scahill pointed out the alleged clerical error had been repeated for several years.
For her supporters, DeVos' unfamiliarity with public education constituted a qualification. Senator Orrin Hatch said he welcomed a Secretary of Education who was “not necessarily of stereotypical education but who might bring new things to the forefront.”
DeVos was most successful in repudiating right-wing positions that are now considered outside of the mainstream. She told Franken she had never believed in so-called conversion therapy to "cure" homosexuality. To Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis) she affirmed equal rights for all students, albeit without actually using any words beginning in L, G, B or T.
The theater of a confirmation hearing inevitably limits its educational benefits, as the DeVos hearing demonstrated. Limited to five minutes of questioning, the senators did not have much time to explore what DeVos actually means by her mantra of "school choice." Judging by the laudatory introduction by committee chair Lamar Aexander, DeVos is a champion of charter schools and accountability. But aside from Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colorado), DeVos faced little questioning about her vision for charter schools in federal education policy, and none about her successful efforts to prevent tighter regulation of Michigan charter schools.
And the partisan tension that suffused the hearing indicated a certain erosion of norms in the confirmation process.
Unlike other Trump nominees, DeVos did not submit an ethics agreement before the hearing, stating how she would avoid conflicts of interest. Russell Berman of the Atlantic says that DeVos is the first cabinet nominee in more than a decade to sit for a confirmation hearing without such an agreement in hand.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington), the ranking Democrat on the committee, asked Alexander for another round of questions, as was done for Mattis and Tillerson. Alexander rebuffed her. The committee would treat DeVos the same way it treated President Obama's education nominees, he said. Arne Duncan and John King had only faced one round of questioning, so DeVos would only face one round.
Eliizabeth Warren politely objected, noting in fact that she had asked for a second round of questions at the hearing for John King, and reminded Alexander that he had granted her request. Warren wondered why the fact that no Republicans wanted to ask additional questions of an Education Secretary should be cited as precedent preventing Democrats from asking additional questions.
"Will the record show that this is the first time that [a senator] has asked for another round of questions and was refused?" she asked Alexander.
"I have to bring this to a conclusion," the chairman replied, adjourning the hearing without answering the question.
Courtesy was spurned and DeVos was spared. The committee is scheduled to vote on her nomination on January 24.