Congress rebuked Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in a massive new spending bill not only by rejecting many of her 2019 budget priorities but also in this unusual way: It inserted language forbidding her from making fundamental changes in her own department’s budget office.

The language on Page 998 of the omnibus spending bill — agreed to by congressional negotiators on Wednesday to avoid a government shutdown Friday night — says this:

Provided, That, notwithstanding any other provision of law, none of the funds provided by this Act or provided by previous Appropriations Acts to the Department of Education available for obligation or expenditure in the current fiscal year may be used for any activity relating to implementing a reorganization that decentralizes, reduces the staffing level, or alters the responsibilities, structure, authority, or functionality of the Budget Service of the Department of Education, relative to the organization and operation of the Budget Service as in effect on January 1, 2018.

With this language, legislators are essentially accusing DeVos of making structural changes to her budget office — part of a major reorganization of the entire department — without telling them the details.

Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro of Connecticut — the top Democrat on the Appropriations subcommittee overseeing the department — said in a statement:

Through the language in this bill to keep our government funded, Democrats and Republicans are preventing Secretary DeVos from circumventing Congress’s oversight authority. As elected officials in charge of appropriating taxpayer dollars efficiently and effectively, it is essential that Secretary DeVos be transparent about any plans to reorganize the Department of Education. This is especially true for the Budget Service office, which provides invaluable expertise to Congress regarding the formulation and implementation of programs.

The Education Department did not respond to queries about the reorganization in the budget office. A department official told staffers last week that he had personally had conversations on Capitol Hill about it.

A career staff member of the Education Department recently sent an email to four staffers on the House and Senate appropriations committees warning them that DeVos was reorganizing without providing details to Congress. The email, obtained by The Washington Post, said in part:

I’m concerned that a breakdown in communication, a culture of secrecy, and a fear of retaliatory action has prevented Budget Service from providing House and Senate appropriators and staff, and for that matter, the public, with key information about the Department’s plans for fiscal year 2019.
Specifically, the Congressional Budget Justifications for Fiscal Year 2019 fail to disclose details of the Department’s Agency Reform Plan. The attached ED Reform Plan slides were presented to employees in an all-staff meeting on February 14. As you can see in the slide deck, the plan was finalized in late November. This means there was ample time to incorporate relevant details into the Department’s request to Congress.

Education officials say the reorganization is to make the department more efficient, but some people on Capitol Hill and in the Education Department itself say they are concerned that DeVos is seeking to give more control to political appointees and less to career staffers who are experts in their fields.

That includes the plan to split the now-centralized Budget Service and send staff members to different sections of the department. One Education Department source, who asked not to be named, said the move would make it harder for career budget staffers to see how money is being spent overall and that it was ill-advised because the budget process works best when it is interconnected in a single office. It would lead to a loss of centralized institutional knowledge that can catch mistakes early in the budgeting process.

During a meeting at Education Department headquarters on March 13, officials updated staffers on the overall reorganization. Kent D. Talbert, senior policy adviser to the deputy secretary, was asked by a staff member why details about the organization were not included in the proposed 2019 budget. (Talbert has been delegated the duties of the deputy secretary pending the confirmation of Gen. Mick Zais by the Senate.)

Talbert said that he had “personally” gone to Capitol Hill for discussions about it.

The staffer responded: “That’s not true.”

Talbert said: “It is true. I did.”

The staffer responded, saying that the staffer was the one who had notified the House and Senate appropriations committees several days earlier, and that “this was the first they heard about it.”

Talbert repeated that he had had conversations about this with Congress, and that DeVos herself had done so, as well. Conversations were continuing, he said.

The staffer said, “That’s not consistent with what I was told.”

During that same meeting, another staffer asked Talbert what the Office of Management and Budget thought about the plan to break up the department’s budget office, and his answer suggested that OMB was not exactly on board.

Talbert said: “The short answer is that we had some very good discussions, opinionated discussion all around, and those conversations are continuing to take place.”