The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights voted Friday to investigate federal civil rights enforcement under President Trump, with the majority expressing “grave concerns” about the Trump administration’s proposal to cut spending and staffing on civil rights efforts at multiple agencies.
“Along with changing programmatic priorities, these proposed cuts would result in a dangerous reduction of civil rights enforcement across the country, leaving communities of color, LGBT people, older people, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups exposed to greater risk of discrimination,” the commission, an independent watchdog created by Congress, said in a statement of concern approved on a 6 to 2 vote.
The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division would lose 121 positions, and its stated priorities do not mention fighting discrimination against LGBT people or people with disabilities, according to the statement, which also identifies deep cuts to programs at Housing and Urban Development, Labor, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Legal Services Corporation, which provides legal aid for low-income people.
It also singles out a significant — 7 percent — staffing cut at the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, saying the proposed staffing reduction is “particularly troubling in light of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s repeated refusal in congressional testimony and other public statements to commit that the Department would enforce federal civil rights laws.”
Commissioner Gail Heriot took exception to the criticism of DeVos, which she called “utterly over the top.” Heriot, a political independent and law professor at the University of San Diego, voted against issuing the statement, calling it an “unfair interpretation of what she is saying.”
In an appearance before a House subcommittee in May, DeVos declined to say whether she would block federal funds from going to private schools that allow discrimination against LGBT students. A few weeks later, she repeatedly said that any schools accepting federal funds would have to follow federal law, but she again did not say whether she would bar discrimination based on religion or sexual orientation in private schools that receive federal funds.
Peter Kirsanow, a Republican who practices law in Ohio, also voted against issuing the statement. He said that the statement seemed to assume a conclusion for an investigation yet to be conducted. “This has a verdict first, trial later quality to it.”
Catherine Lhamon, the commission’s chair, disagreed, saying that the statement was carefully worded not to assume a conclusion but to put forth a set of concerns that deserve further examination.