Policy

Senate Democrats Want More Time to Question Trump’s Education Nominee

Committee members limited to five minutes of questioning

Senate HELP Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., plans to hold one round of questions during Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos’ scheduled hearing. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Senate Democrats are seeking to extend the five minutes they will be allowed to question President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for Education secretary Betsy DeVos during her confirmation hearing next week, arguing her nomination raises a slew of issues that need more time to be examined.

While the confirmation hearings for some of Trump’s Cabinet picks have stretched for many hours, Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said he would stick to the committee’s standard of holding one round of questions during DeVos’ scheduled hearing at 5 p.m. on Jan. 17. After opening statements by Alexander and ranking member Patty Murray of Washington, the 12 Republicans and 11 Democrats on the committee will be limited to five minutes of questioning, he said.

“We’re applying the golden rule,” the chairman told CQ Roll Call on Wednesday. “We’re gonna treat Betsy DeVos the same way we treated President Obama’s nominees and President Bush’s nominees.” He added that he did not expect there to be a second round of questions.

The committee is expected to vote on DeVos' nomination on Jan. 24. If the committee votes in favor of the nomination, it will then head to the Senate floor, according to Alexander's office.

Senate Democrats on HELP say they need to ensure they have enough time to scrutinize the record of DeVos, a wealthy Republican donor with no official school management experience. In the weeks leading up to the hearing, Democratic lawmakers have brought up a wide range of concerns, including how school choice policies supported by DeVos will impact public school funding, potential conflicts of interest and an outstanding $5 million fine, imposed on a political action committee DeVos chaired for an unauthorized campaign contribution.

“I am very concerned, extremely concerned about her attitude toward public education,” said Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., in a statement. “Giving committee members only five minutes to address important issues with this nominee isn’t a productive or effective way to earn support.”

[DeVos Hearing Postponed Until Next Week]

Although senators had only five minutes to ask questions of Education Secretary John B. King Jr. as well as former secretaries Margaret Spellings and Arne Duncan, several senators were able to ask additional questions near the end of the hearing.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who was allowed to ask King a second series of questions at his confirmation hearing, said it was important that Alexander continue the practice of allowing additional time for questioning of DeVos.

“The decisions made by the Secretary of Education have potentially life-changing impacts on millions of young Americans,” she said in a statement to CQ Roll Call. “Given Mrs. DeVos’s paper-thin record, we have virtually no idea what she plans to do. Allowing senators to fully question nominees prior to confirmation votes is critical to our advice and consent responsibilities.”

The committee’s ranking member, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, also noted Alexander’s history of allowing members the time they needed and said she hoped the practice would continue.

Unlike other nominees for the top Education Department post, DeVos’ primary qualifications are advocating for school choice, vouchers and charter schools through participation in boards and the power of her checkbook. That, say Democrats, leave them with many questions about her potential conflicts of interest and her positions in areas where she has not been active.

“Democrats have made it very clear that they have serious concerns about Ms. DeVos,'' said Eli Zupnick, a spokesman for Murray. They ''are going to want to hear a whole lot about her record and potential conflicts of interest, as well as the many areas within the Department of Education jurisdiction where her record is thin or unclear — including higher education, campus sexual assault, early learning, and more.”

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said Democrats were working to get another round of questions in to ensure DeVos is thoroughly vetted for conflicts of interest. “If we have two rounds, plus a meeting (with DeVos) which I already had, plus questions for the record afterwards, that’s a good review,” he told CQ Roll Call.

As part of that, Democrats are stressing that the hearing should not be held before the Office of Government Ethics completes its review of DeVos’ conflicts of interest.

DeVos submitted her paperwork to the office back in December, but as of Thursday afternoon, no documents had been made public.

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