Sunday, January 22, 2017

Lack of Precedent but Lots of Poise

Viewing the Chairman's Welcome and the opening remarks of the Ranking Member of the confirmation hearing of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education is a slight misnomer since it was really viewing the cameras focused on Mrs. DeVos sitting in the "hot seat" during their remarks. I did however admire the amount of poise and self-control Mrs. DeVos showed as she sat under that scrutiny (even more so when Senator Murray started speaking). 


Chairman Alexander pointed out that they would be following the patterns of previous hearings for the nominees of other administrations including when he was a nominee in 1991. He overviewed that Mrs. DeVos has completed the required Senate committee forms, an FBI background check had been completed, and that she had submitted her financial records to the committee on ethics to review for any potential conflict of interest. He also outlined that Mrs. DeVos had completed the earlier step of meeting with each Committee Member privately and that this hearing would be follow-up to those individual meetings consisting of 5 min rounds of questions from each member. After the hearing, the members could submit additional questions in writing for follow-up and the Executive Meeting for determinations would be next Tuesday, the 24th, if the ethics report was completed by Fri, Jan. 20 and submitted to the committee members. 

Chairman Alexander was admittedly a strong proponent of Mrs. DeVos as a candidate for Secretary of Education which came out clearly in his pacing, tone of voice, and his statements. I already expected and understood that there would be definite opposition to Mrs. DeVos's nomination but I was quite surprised at just how strongly that came through in just the tone of the room through the video. I cannot even imagine what it must have been like to have been in that room; and the only person I had actually heard speak so far was someone squarely in favor of her in that position. I was reminded that this was not really a job "interview", it was a hearing. Mrs. DeVos's statements were not a conversation, they were testimony in front of a Senate Committee as to why she should be selected as the highest ranking official in education for the United States. 


After the Chairman outlined the expectations and guidelines of the session, he explained they would be applying the Golden Rule. He then spoke to some of the points Mrs. DeVos's critics have made. He was not unfair in her defense but I caught myself wondering how much she may have contributed to any of his previous campaigns. The fact that the hearing was held prior to her being cleared with the ethics report (stating no conflict of interest or financial entanglements) is unprecendented. Deviating from precedent in this manner is a significant negative that will need to be overcome not only if Betsy DeVos is to be approved but if she is to be taken seriously. Even if her report comes back "clear", it will be some time before the question of "did the ends justify the means" is answered.

The question of precedent came up again later. At the end of her remarks, Ranking Member Murray included that there were significant questions and concerns regarding the qualifications of Mrs. DeVos for this position, so much so that she hoped the Chairman would reconsider the five minute guideline to allow time to explore the answers. Chairman Alexander again cited the Golden Rule and stated they would not deviate from the same rules they have followed with previous nominees. There was a brief discussion about whether or not it was rule or precedent and how they would know those rules and some minutia; since the camera was on Mrs. DeVos the whole time it was impossible to see those speaking. It was hard to know if they were really discussing or if they were bickering. Either way, it definitely continued to set a tone of contention in the room.  


Once Ranking Member Murray got going with her remarks, I admired Mrs. DeVos's poise even more. Senator Murray opened with the directives of the committee, which were to ensure that the nominee: 

  1. is qualified;
  2. is free of conflict of interest;
  3. puts workers and families first not corporations. 

She went on to complain about President Trump not releasing tax returns to explaining that the committee needed to ensure that the highest ethical standards were maintained. [definitely a statement for the record rather than specific to the hearing] She thanked Mrs. DeVos for her position on transparency and ethical openness which they discussed in their private meeting and then went right on to share her list of significant concerns related to Mrs. DeVos being able to meet their standards for the position. 

Senator Murray was specific and unyielding in stating her categorical concerns. The whole time she was speaking, the camera was directly on Betsy DeVos who did not flinch, wince or even display an extra blinking of the eyes or wrinkle of the brow in disagreement; she did not once lose her poise or composure. Impressive. 

Points Made

There were some educational points made during this opening segment as well. Chairman Alexander provided a brief historical outline of the development of charter schools movement in the U.S.. He made a point that Mrs. DeVos is one in a long line of political figures who have supported charter schools. He pointed out that concept that vouchers are in place in the form of the G.I. Bill and college vouchers which have promoted competition among college and he posited that it could do the same for K-12 education. He pointed out that critics have been concerned about how Mrs. DeVos has used her wealth to influence educational options. I did appreciate his point that she could use her wealth to deny opportunities to low-income students rather than expand them. He may have lost a point though when he worked to make a case that Mrs. DeVos is more in the mainstream than her critics. That one was a hard sell. 

Ranking Member Murray stressed the term "unaccountable private schools" in her concern about vouchers and shared that she had concerns directly related to "gutting investments" in public schools through privatization. She was not impressed with Mrs. DeVos's understanding of Title IX funds in their private meeting and hoped DeVos had been able to get up to speed since they had met. She had specific concerns related to potential financial entanglements which could be conflict of interest and put on the record that those could have been laid to rest if the hearing had been held after the report was final. Senator Murrary could be criticized for bringing up that point quite a few times but it was a valid point. Her group was trying to push the five minute limit for questions but were told it would not change because it was precedent; at the same time, it was completely out of precedent to be holding the hearing prior to receiving the ethics report. It felt a little like a case of do as I say, not as I do. 


This segment of the hearing was the opening remarks, but I felt like it should have been called "Round One". The bell rang and everyone appeared to retreat to their neutral corners for the moment as the cameras shifted to the Senators who would be introducing the nominee. I think you could say that Round One went to Mrs. DeVos for her poise, but it was a draw between the Chairman and the Ranking Member - both whined a little, both postured well and both made solid points without going over the top; it was politics at work. On to Round Two. 

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