January 18, 2017
Wall-to-wall coverage of the Senate confirmation hearings for Trump cabinet appointees having ended on the cable news channels, yesterday I tried C-SPAN to catch the inquisition of Betsy DeVos by the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Unfortunately my timing was off, and I caught only the last few minutes of a three-hour and ten minute session. On the basis of what may not have been a representative segment of the questioning, I had the impression that Ms DeVos was the most nervous and least prepared candidate of the few I have seen.
To be fair, I was hearing only the adversarial questioning of Democrat senators, but I thought Ms DeVos’ answers were tangential to and evasive of the questions actually asked. That she answered difficult questions like a politician did not recommend her to me, but there is much about her I do not know, which was why I tuned-in in the first place. Again, to be fair, some of the questions were leading, compound, or were obvious traps that richly deserved not to be answered.
Personally, I tend to be critical of public education and focus on its failings in the inner city, but my daughter-in-law is a dedicated and extremely hard-working grade school principal and I am very respectful, not to say in awe, of the resource that she and her teachers represent. I have read that the present system of micro-management and ‘quality control’ in public schools is cruelly erosive of the spirit of good teachers, who, like many good people, work for appreciation and respect rather than salary alone, and I just don’t know whether the charter school and voucher system DeVos is likely to favor will make the plight of public school teachers worse, increasing burnout and throwing the resource baby out with the bureaucratic bathwater.
However the tail end of the hearing produced an interesting procedural drama that I found more fascinating than its substantive content. In the news during the past few weeks Democrats had threatened to delay the approval of cabinet appointees by the only road open to a minority party that had previously, when it held a slim majority, shot itself in the foot by voting to end the sixty-vote-for-cloture rule. With the filibuster not available, Democrats had said they would slow Trump’s roll by demanding every jot and tittle of a candidate’s paperwork and dragging out the questioning as long as possible prior to the confirmation vote they were sure to lose.
Apparently, before I started watching, one of the Democrats had asked for a “second round” of questions for each committee-person. Which Had been denied by Chairman Lamar Alexander, Republican from Tennessee, on the grounds that the members would have as much time to vet DeVos as had been allotted in any of several previous years of confirmation hearings, for instance of President Obama’s appointees.
Therefore, as the hearing was about to be closed, Democrat senators, including Colorado’s Michael Bennett again raised the matters of a “second round”, and of requiring the candidate to provide her tax returns, objecting to the closing of the hearing. On the matter of tax returns, the Chair had apparently earlier ruled that if the committee wanted to change the rules to require returns of future candidates, it could take that matter up after the hearings. When the request for a second round of questions was again denied by the Chair, on the same grounds as earlier, Elizabeth Warren made an additional argument for a “second round”, and when that also didn’t work, cited an obscure Senate rule requiring that time be given to hear testimony from “minority witnesses” before closing.
Chairman Alexander, saying that he respected Warren’s record as a renowned professor of law, nevertheless held that the rule she cited had never been observed within memory, and with that as a precedent, declined to honor it now. It was never clear whether there were actually any such witnesses ready to testify, but the appearance was that Warren had raised the issue merely to prolong the hearing.
Tennessee’s Senator Alexander is also formerly governor of that state, the founder of a law firm and founder of Corporate Child Care, the largest provider of work-site child care. Although he tipped his hat to Warren’s academic credentials, in his friendly, country-lawyerly way, he didn’t seem at all intimidated by them.
Of course, the Chairman’s decision may open the door to challenging DeVos’ confirmation, if that is the result of the Senate vote.
I should mention that in addition to her three hours and ten minutes on the hot-seat, DeVos had met with each senator individually for a half hour. She had offered them more time when requesting the meetings in December, but they were “too busy” to meet with her that month. And the senators have all submitted questions in writing that DeVos says she will try to answer before the Senate votes on her appointment. However, she is not actually required to answer all of those questions. The only risk being that senators who don’t like her anyway might not vote for her, which they won’t anyway. The matter of written answers became clear when former (and some say still current) clown, Minnesota Senator Al Franken, with what I perceive to be his usual empty bluster, tried unsuccessfully to bully the Chair into promising that DeVos would answer the questions by a certain date,
We will have to see how delaying strategy works out for the Democrats, but it seemed to me that with all their effort, they were able to achieve a delay of only about ten minutes when their thrusts were parried by an experienced and well-prepared Republican chairman.
[Ed. September 27,2020: This all seems tame from the perspective of the Kavanaugh hearing and the impending upcoming fight over the pre-election-day appointment of Trump’s third Supreme Court Justice. Senator Schumer and other minority leaders have said, with histrionic and feigned moral indignation, that now, “the gloves are off”, and they will use any means available to frustrate the appointment of the president’s nominees. After the brutal Kavanaugh hearings, and the savage treatment of Judge Amy Coney Barrett by Senator Feinstein when Barrett was appointed to the federal appeals bench, it makes the gorge rise to hear any Democrat infer that etiquette of any kind has, before now, played a role in their resistance to anything Trump seeks to accomplish.]