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Civil Rights Commission Launches Investigation Into Ed. Dept., Other Agencies

By Alyson Klein — June 16, 2017 3 min read
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The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, an independent agency charged with advising Congress and the President, has launched a two-year investigation into civil rights practices at several federal agencies under the Trump administration, including the U.S. Department of Education.

The commission, which made the move on Friday, plans to take a closer look at civil rights enforcement across the government, including the Departments of Justice, Health and Human Services, Labor, and Housing and Urban Development.

The panel is particularly concerned that the Trump administration is seeking to cut the budgets of the civil rights arms of these agencies. And it is bothered by statements by some cabinet officials, including U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, that the comisssion says may demonstrate that the Trump administration isn’t going to take civil rights enforcement seriously. (DeVos is, in fact, the only cabinet official the statement mentions by name).

The commission is chaired by Catherine Lhamon, who served as assistant secretary of civil rights at the department under President Barack Obama. It serves in a watch-dog role, but has no power to enforce the findings of any of its investigations. But Congress can act on its recommendations.

When it comes to the Education Department, the commission is concerned that Trump’s budget calls for slashing staff at the office for civil rights by 7 percent, or 46 full-time employees. The commission worries that this could lead to an “untenable caseload” of 42 cases per staff member. Trump’s budget still must be approved by Congress, which will likely ignore much of the proposed spending plan.

Still, the panel finds the cuts “particularly troubling in light of DeVos’ repeated refusal” to promise Congress that she will “enforce federal civil rights laws"—a possible reference to DeVos’ confusion over special education laws during her confirmation hearing.

The investigation comes just a day after ProPublica reported, and Education Week confirmed, that the Education Department is planning to revamp civil rights procedures used during the Obama administration. The Trump administration will put much less of an emphasis on investigating individual complaints for evidence of broader, systemic discrimination.

The commission will also be taking a look at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Legal Services Corporation.

“For 60 years, Congress has charged the Commission to monitor Federal civil rights enforcement and recommend necessary change. We take this charge seriously, and we look forward to reporting our findings to Congress, the President, and the American people,” said Lhamon in a statement.

Not all of the commissioners were on the same page as Lhamon, however, when it comes to the Trump adminisration’s civil rights record so far. Only six of the eight commissioners voted to express concern about the Trump administration’s handling of civil rights, while two voted against it, according to a spokesman for the commission.

The two commissioners who did not favor issuing a statement expressing concern—Peter Kirsanow, a Republican, and Gail Heriot, an Independent—were appointed by GOP congressional leaders. The other six commisssioners, including four Democrats and two independents, were appointed by President Barack Obama or Democratic congressional leaders.

All eight commissioners, however, voted to begin the investigation into the administration’s civil rights practices, the spokesman said.

Want more? Check out the commission’s statement on the investigation here.

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