Ahead of the confirmation hearing for President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, the Republican Chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) informed the Democratic committee members that time and questions would be severely limited, thus hamstringing Democrats from rigorously vetting DeVos, who is wildly unqualified.
After Senate Republicans schemed to protect Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees from ethics scrutiny, fast-tracking their confirmation hearings, they continued their brazen campaign to assist Trump’s dreadful nominees by limiting Senate Democrats’ questions, and the time in which they had to ask them, at Secretary of Education nominee Betsy DeVos’ hearing.
Ahead of the hearing, the HELP Committee chair, Senator Lamar Alexander, informed Democrats that they would be allowed only one round of questions, five minutes each.
DeVos, who has no serious qualifications, apart from her intention to destroy public education, warranted a thorough vetting. But meaningful scrutiny would have certainly exposed even more of her evident unfitness for the role, so Republicans endeavored to prevent it.
Upon hearing of this opportunistic absurdity, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer made a statement on the Senate floor, laying into Alexander by admonishing him: “This is not the way for comity.”
Five minutes, one round, for a controversial nominee who has $5 billion net worth, who hasn’t filed her papers yet? We feel very strongly there ought to be another hearing.
And this will affect how the rest of the nominees will go forward because we need time on them. I’ve never heard anything like this. A major nominee with major controversy, not filing her papers, and the hearing only began at 5:00 p.m. today, because my friend the Senator from Tennessee wouldn’t switch the hearing to a different day, even though there’s no rush.
And now he’s just decreed, as the hearing went through that one round: only five minutes each. I understand why my Republican colleagues, Mr. President, are rushing through these nominees and this one in particular.
They’re afraid what the public will hear.
Schumer’s Democratic colleagues on the HELP Committee continually registered their contempt for these cynical limitations throughout the hearing, with Alexander incredibly insisting the decision had been made “to be fair.”
Senators Patty Murray (D-WA) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA):
MURRAY: I’m hopeful that this can be a smooth process, but, Mr. Chairman, I know my members are all here tonight; they are hoping for more than five minutes of questions on this critical nominee, and I hope as we get through this, you will consider doing that.
ALEXANDER: Well, thank you, Senator Murray. I’m going to follow the golden rule. I’m not going to change the rules and apply to Senator — to Mrs. DeVos rules that we haven’t applied to President Obama’s nominees or to President Bush’s nominees. So we’ll have a five-minute round of questions, and you and I can ask questions after that for another five minutes. That’s exactly what we’ve done before. Members of this Committee have met with Mrs. DeVos. Some have already asked written questions and will have two more days to think of more, and then she’ll need to answer them before we vote.
As far as tax returns are concerned, if you would like to bring that up, we can bring that up at our next executive session, which would be 24th, if her government ethics letter is completed by Friday. I would note Committee rules don’t require tax returns to be reported by presidential nominees. The law does not. We did not require it of President Obama’s two nominees for Education Secretary. If we want to change the rules, we can do that, but I’m not in favor of changing the rules in the middle of the process.
WARREN: Mr. Chairman, may I ask a point of order?
ALEXANDER: What is your point of order?
WARREN: I believe, Mr. Chairman, that we got a second round with the John King hearings. I asked two rounds of questions in that case.
ALEXANDER: You did, and I did, and so — in each of the John King, in the last two nominees, Mr. Duncan and Mr. King, we had a five-minute round, and then the Chairman and one Senator, one other Senator, asked five minutes of questions. So, I will ask five minutes of questions, and I will give Senator Murray the opportunity to be the other Senator who does that.
MURRAY: Mr. Chairman, I would just say that nobody asked for additional time at that point. So, I hope as we get through this hearing, we hear members’ questions and we’ll have an opportunity to revisit.
ALEXANDER: Well, I appreciate the request, but I’m not going to change the rules in the middle of the game!
MURRAY: I was not aware those were rules.
ALEXANDER: That is the precedent that we’ve followed as far back as 1991, when I was the Education Secretary. We did it for both of President Obama’s, and we’re going to do the same thing for Mrs. DeVos.
MURRAY: Well, again, I wasn’t aware there was a precedent. But I would like to —
ALEXANDER: That’s as clear a precedent as I can think of!
Senator Al Franken (D-MN):
FRANKEN: But it surprises me that you don’t know this issue. And, Mr. Chairman, I think this is a good reason for us to have more questions — because this is a very important subject, education, our kids’ education. And I think we’re selling our kids short by not being able to have a debate on it. And I didn’t know of any rule about this, you know, everyone gets one question and then one other Senator gets a question. I don’t know where that rule comes from.
ALEXANDER: Well, I’ll tell you where it comes from, Senator Franken. It comes from the Committee president and the way we treated President Obama’s nominees, John King, and the way we treated Arne Duncan, and the way I was treated when I was a Secretary. [crosstalk] We will apply the same rules to them, to Secretary DeVos, err, to Mrs. DeVos —
FRANKEN: Well, I think we’re selling our kids short by not being able to ask follow-up questions. And I was kind of surprised — well, I’m not that surprised — that you did not know this issue.
FRANKEN: So, I’m just asking, if you’re challenging my figures, I would ask that you get your figures straight about education policy. And that’s why we want more questions — because we want to know if this person that we are entrusting, may entrust, to be the Secretary of Education, if she has the breadth and depth of knowledge that we would expect from someone who has that important job. Thank you.
ALEXANDER: Thank you, Senator Franken. I had as many disagreements with Secretary King as you apparently do with Mrs. DeVos, and we’re treating her in exactly the same way that we treated him. And I think that’s what I would call the golden rule.
FRANKEN: I did not hear one member of the Committee ask to ask more questions [during that hearing], and, here, virtually every member of the minority is asking to ask more questions. And that’s a very substantial difference.
ALEXANDER: We have —[laughs] Because you’ve got a nominee of the Republican Party. We’re not going to treat a Republican nominee differently than we treated a Democratic nominee. We’ve had the same situation with both of President Obama’s nominees. [crosstalk]
MURRAY: Mr. Chairman, I do want to put in the record that Michael Leavitt had two rounds —
ALEXANDER: Michael Leavitt was never the Education Secretary.
MURRAY: Rod Paige, under Bush, had ten-minute rounds. There is other precedent. So that’s why my members really are asking —
ALEXANDER: I appreciate that, Senator Murray. And I appreciate your saying that. I’m trying to be fair by treating Mrs. DeVos in the same way we treated both of President Obama’s education nominees.
Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO), who expertly pushed back on Alexander’s ludicrous defense of treating DeVos the same way President Obama’s nominees had been treated, by pointing out that Obama’s nominees were qualified.
BENNET: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. And, in view of how fair you’ve been to me and to other members of the Committee, it pains me to say this: I really wish we had a second round of questions, too. I really wish we had the tax returns from this nominee. I don’t believe you are a precedent for this. When you were the nominee, you had been a governor, you have been the president of a university. John king had been a school principal, had been the Commissioner of Education in the state of New York. Arne Duncan had been the Superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools.
Those were the experiences they brought to their committee hearing, and their records were well-known and well-established. There is no way in the period of time we have here that we’re going to be able to elicit that level of background. So, I would ask that some consideration be given to having additional questions, and that the tax returns be made available to the Committee.
A number of Democrats continued to press the issue at the end of the hearing, with Murray making one last, lengthy appeal on behalf of her colleagues’ attempts to provide thorough vetting on behalf of the American public. As part of that overture, she said:
MURRAY: I have questions that I know all of our committees want to follow up, including on the responses I just heard on IDA, sexual assault, Pell Grants, and a number of other questions. Let me just say, I’m really disappointed that you have preemptively cut off our members from asking questions. It really is unprecedented. And you and I have worked together, and I appreciate that, but I hope you change your mind. I don’t know what you trying to protect Ms. DeVos from.
Murray’s colleague, Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) wondered the same thing, along with a lot of other people watching.
What are Republicans trying to hide by shutting down #DeVosHearing after just 2 hrs of questions? Tillerson hearing went all day.
— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) January 17, 2017
It is, of course, a rhetorical question. They are trying to hide that DeVos is patently unqualified for the position, and that the only reason she was selected is to destroy public education in America.