Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee on Tuesday slammed the confirmation hearing of Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s education nominee, through the Senate education committee, which he chairs — over the objections of Democrats who practically begged for more time to question her.
Democratic members of the committee repeatedly asked for more time to ask DeVos questions during the hearing on Thursday evening. Over and over, he said he was sticking to the “rules” set for President Obama’s two education secretaries, Arne Duncan and John B. King Jr. and some past education nominees: Every member would get five minutes to ask questions, but only the chairman and the committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, could get an extra five minutes.
“I’m trying to be fair,” he said. He also said: “We’re not going to treat a Republican nominee differently than we are going to treat a Democratic nominee.”
Murray pointed out that Rod Paige, one of George W. Bush’s education secretaries, had 10-minute confirmation rounds of questions. Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.) pointed out that every other nominee had come to their confirmation hearing with an established record of work in public education and that DeVos had highly controversial positions that needed parsing. Alexander didn’t budge.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) called the five minutes allowed to question her “meager,” and added: “I think this is a real shame, this rush job. . . . It suggests that this committee is trying to protect this nominee from scrutiny.”
The hearing was held by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, even though the U.S. Office of Government Ethics — which is responsible for vetting presidential nominees for potential conflicts of interest — has not finished its review of DeVos’s vast wealth and financial investments.
DeVos was asked a range of questions about education policy, and some of them gave her trouble. For a time, for example, she insisted that states should have leeway in implementing the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), apparently not realizing it was a federal law that has to be applied uniformly. Later she said she was “confused” about the question.
But the one theme that repeated during the entire hearing was about how long members would have to quiz her.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, told Alexander that Obama’s education secretary nominees had filled out their financial and ethics papers before their confirmation hearings, and added: “I’m a little confused about what precedent means here.”
Near the end of the hearing, Murray turned to Alexander and said, “I don’t know what you are trying to protect Mrs. DeVos from.” And she called for a second hearing.
Alexander defended himself, saying that senators had a chance to question DeVos in their offices, and that the hearing had gone on more than three hours and was longer than both Duncan’s and King’s.
It apparently didn’t occur to Alexander — or he didn’t care — that this was an unusually contentious hearing for an education secretary and that the public might want to hear more about her.
It did to Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr., a Democrat from Pennsylvania, who noted that “our constituents weren’t there for half an hour” in senators’ offices when DeVos visited.
Again, Alexander was not moved, and the discussion about a second round went on and on — but there was no second round.
Alexander asked DeVos if she would try to answer all the senators’ written questions before the full Senate votes on her confirmation, which is scheduled for next week.
She said she would endeavor to do that.