In a somewhat divisive executive session, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee on Tuesday morning voted along party lines to report Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos to the full Senate for confirmation.
Before the 12-11 vote, Democratic members of the committee continued to express their concerns with what they see as a lack of knowledge and experience from DeVos. Democrats also continued to argue that they had unanswered questions and concerns about DeVos’ potential conflicts of interest and her finances in general.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), the ranking member of the committee, said DeVos’ record is “robust” and “deeply problematic” and said she hoped her colleagues had reviewed it.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) said it is “hard to imagine a candidate less qualified or more dangerous” to be tasked with overseeing the nation’s education system.
“I gave her the opportunity to prove to the American people that she is serious about protecting students,” Warren said. “During her confirmation hearing, I asked Mrs. DeVos basic, straightforward questions about her commitment to protecting students and taxpayers from fraud committed by shady for-profit colleges. But she was unwilling to commit to using the department’s many tools and resources to keep students from getting cheated when fraudulent colleges break the law.”
Republican members of the committee said precedent is to vote a nominee through committee – that although they disagreed with former President Barack Obama’s education secretary nominees, they voted them through committee.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who chairs the committee, has repeatedly referred to this precedent as “The Golden Rule.” Alexander said he didn’t think it was fair to treat DeVos differently than Obama’s education secretary nominees. He took issue with the fact that senators still wanted to question DeVos, despite the fact that she is, he claims, the most questioned education secretary nominee in history, and went on to say Democrats submitted 25 times more follow-up questions than Republicans had for Obama’s two nominees.
“I respect my colleagues. I don't question their motives. I don't question their votes. But I believe their concerns are misplaced,” Alexander said.
Several of the questions submitted pertained to higher education. Warren, for example, asked DeVos whether she would commit to continuing the use of prior-prior year (PPY) tax data on the FAFSA, to which DeVos answered, “yes.” Warren also asked DeVos how she would ensure the Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA) prioritizes students and borrowers over “colleges, student loan companies, and the Department of Education’s contractors,” and how she would work to reduce student loan delinquencies and defaults.
In response, DeVos said the previous administration did not “conduct much oversight over FSA to ensure it was meeting its statutory requirements.” She continued to write that she “plans to hold FSA accountable for results in such a way that ensures students and families are well-served.”
Murray asked DeVos in questions submitted after the confirmation hearing whether she would commit to “reviewing the institutional history of the Department of Education’s actions to constrain abuses by for-profit colleges” since the Higher Education Act was signed in 1965.
“Let me be clear: Fraud should never be tolerated. Period. Bad actors clearly exist – in both public and nonpublic institutions. When we find them, we should act decisively to protect students and enforce existing laws,” DeVos wrote in response. “What I do not want to do is discriminate against or be intolerant of an institution of higher education simply because of its tax status.”
Republican senators explained their support for DeVos by saying that they admired her charitable contributions to education causes, with several saying DeVos could have done other things with her time, effort, and money.
The committee members also clashed over the use of a proxy vote on DeVos’ nomination, as well as on an amendment that Murray introduced, which would require nominees to provide three years of tax returns to the committee.
Following the votes, Murray questioned whether Alexander’s proxy vote on behalf of Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) was in line with committee rules. Democrats argued that the vote was actually 11-11 with Hatch’s physical absence, and that the committee should reschedule a vote at a later date after notification. After a recess, the committee came back into session and ultimately proceeded to re-vote on both DeVos’ nomination and Murray’s amendment, which passed and failed, respectively.
Tensions ran high as several Democratic members said the process had been a “rush job” and a “steamroll job.” At one point, Murray said that the disagreement among the committee was a “massive break” from a strong bipartisan record, and that it will impact the committee’s ability to work together moving forward. Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) said after the vote that this hearing was “the most embarrassing I’ve ever attended.”
Despite the favorable vote, there were still two shaky supporters in Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). With a 52 seat majority in the Senate, Republican “defectors” could easily tip the scales, assuming Democrats all vote against DeVos.
“I continue to have concerns, and I think Mrs. DeVos has much to learn about our nation’s public schools, how they work and what challenges they face,” Murkowski said. “And I have serious concerns about a nominee to be secretary of education who has been so involved in one side of the equation, so immersed in the push for vouchers that she may be unaware of what is broken in our public schools or how to fix it.”
After stating that she would vote to move DeVos forward, however, Murkowski said she still hadn’t decided how she would vote in the full Senate. Collins made similar comments earlier in the hearing.
“But do note that she has not yet earned my full support,” Murkowski said. “And when each of us have the opportunity to vote ‘aye’ or ‘nay’ on the floor, I would not advise that she yet count on my vote.”
Publication Date: 1/31/2017