Politics & Policy

Senate Dems Have It Both Ways on Education Department Staffing Issues

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies on Capitol Hill about the department’s FY2019 budget request, March 20, 2018. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
They blame Trump for understaffing but delay confirming qualified nominees.

Yesterday, on a party-line 50–48 vote, the Senate finally confirmed Brigadier General Mitchell Zais to serve as the U.S. deputy secretary of education — 221 days after he was nominated by President Trump. Senate Education Committee chair Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.) observed that the delay in confirming Zais — a former college president and state superintendent of education — was “inexcusable” and that he “did not deserve to be subject to Democrats’ unreasonable and unnecessary obstruction.” Yet that obstruction has been all too common.

Betsy DeVos’s tenure as secretary of education has featured plenty of bumps and rough patches, with Democrats and the press eager to highlight each as evidence of perfidy or incompetence. To be sure, much of the blame for DeVos’s travails should be laid at her feet and those of her team — but if we’re being fair, a hefty slice needs to be reserved for the same Senate Democrats who have lambasted her while working assiduously to ensure that DeVos operates with a skeleton crew.

While it was slow to put nominees forward, the oft-dysfunctional Trump administration has had a slate of qualified Department of Education nominees awaiting confirmation for the better part of a year. With the filibuster gone and the Republican Senate now able to confirm presidential nominees with just 51 votes, Senate Democrats know they have little chance of rejecting obviously qualified nominees. So they have resorted to a raft of delaying tactics designed to stall appointments.

Whereas standard practice used to entail confirming qualified sub-cabinet nominees by voice vote, Democrats are forcing debate and floor votes for each nominee. In order to move forward, then, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell must request a cloture vote; after a required day’s delay, the Senate next votes to impose cloture, after which comes up to 30 hours of debate on the nominee before the final confirmation vote takes place.

Given the crush of the Senate calendar, the results can be dramatic. Consider that Carlos Muñiz, now general counsel for the department, was reported favorably out of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) committee on October 18, 2017, but it wasn’t until April 9, 2018, that Senate Republicans and Democrats agreed on 10 hours of debate, and he wasn’t confirmed until April 18.

The Democrats are free to do this, of course. But it’s the height of chutzpah for them to blast DeVos and her team for inexperience and shortcomings while working to stop experienced hands from being confirmed, especially when it’s clear that Democratic objections are not based on a lack of qualifications.

It’s the height of chutzpah for them to blast DeVos and her team for inexperience and shortcomings while working to stop experienced hands from being confirmed.

For instance, immediately prior to his appointment, General Zais served for four years as state superintendent for education in South Carolina; before that, he spent a decade as president of Newberry College in South Carolina. Obama’s first nominee for the same position, Tony Miller, was confirmed after only 66 days and had worked in private equity and consulting before being tapped.

The nomination of Kenneth Marcus to serve as assistant secretary for civil rights has been pending on the calendar for more than 196 days. It took Obama’s first nominee for the same role, Russlynn Ali, only 43 days to be confirmed. Again, the difference isn’t one of qualifications. Indeed, Marcus formerly held the same post in the George W. Bush administration. He has also served as staff director on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and as president and general counsel of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, a nonprofit that combats anti-Semitism. Prior to her nomination by President Obama, Ali held several senior positions at left-leaning education advocacy and reform organizations.

Trump’s pick for assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, Frank Brogan (a hero who once thwarted a school shooter), has been before the Senate for more than 147 days. Prior to his nomination, Brogan was chancellor of Pennsylvania’s public universities. Before that, he served as Florida’s state commissioner of education and, later, as Florida’s lieutenant governor. Obama’s first appointee to the same role, former Pomona Unified school superintendent Thelma Meléndez de Santa Ana, was confirmed after only 46 days.

It took Mark Schneider, Trump’s nominee for director of the Institute of Education Sciences, 111 days to be confirmed; John Easton, his Obama-administration counterpart, took only 31 days. Prior to appointment, Schneider had a long career as an accomplished academic, author of influential books and papers on K–12 and higher education, and the U.S. commissioner of education statistics. Easton, like Schneider a Ph.D. researcher, had previously served as executive director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago.

Peter Oppenheim, Trump’s appointee for assistant secretary for legislation and congressional affairs, waited 57 days before confirmation; Gabriella Gomez, Obama’s first nominee for the same position, only 11. Before joining the department, Oppenheim served as legislative counsel and then education-policy director for Senator Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate HELP committee, and played a key role in the writing and passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act. Gomez had spent three years on the Hill working as senior education-policy adviser to Representative George Miller, then-chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, and five years as a union lobbyist.

Obama’s education appointees were a qualified bunch, and a president is entitled to choose as he likes. Yet when proffered candidates who are at least equally qualified, Democratic senators have refused to engage in the most basic acts of responsible governance. For all the talk of Republican obstructionism under Obama, the numbers speak for themselves. In total, six Trump Department of Education nominees already confirmed by the Senate collectively spent 514 more days awaiting confirmation than their Obama counterparts (as President Obama did not nominate a chief financial officer, this count excludes Douglas Webster, who was confirmed by the Senate last December to replace Bush holdover Lawrence Warder).

While both parties have grown skilled in the art of obstruction, it makes good sense to confirm qualified sub-cabinet nominees in a timely manner. After all, at a place like the U.S. Department of Education, much of this is just about keeping the machinery of government working in a manner that protects citizens and taxpayers.

But everything is now apparently subordinate to the #Resistance. And it’s produced a Catch-22 of bad faith, as Senate Democrats have thundered about DeVos’s lack of bureaucratic and educational experience even as they use every possible tactic to delay confirmations and prevent qualified candidates from joining her staff. In opting for this course, Senate Democrats have helped manufacture the very kind of bureaucratic problems they decry. It would be nice to see them asked to answer for that.

Frederick M. Hess is the director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Grant Addison is the education program manager at AEI.

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