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Tension Between DeVos and a GOP Congress Reflects a Beltway Tradition

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 26, 2018 5 min read
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By Alyson Klein and Andrew Ujifusa

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is frustrated with Congress these days. And it appears the feeling is mutual.

But she’s hardly the first education secretary to clash with lawmakers in her own party, over the department’s budget, policy direction, and more.

“I don’t see this being unique to Betsy as a person,” said John Bailey, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank that has received donations from DeVos and her family. “This seems to be the institutional clashes we’ve seen for a while.”

DeVos, who lead the American Federation for Children before becoming secretary, has spent her advocacy career doling out millions in campaign donations, mostly to GOP candidates, and many of them members of Congress. Her family has also donated to Republican causes. But that hasn’t stopped lawmakers from largely rejecting her proposals, including cuts to the agency’s bottom-line, a new private school choice program, and new federal resources for public school choice.

Congress—which is controlled by Republicans—also put language in the recently enacted spending bill that would block DeVos from moving forward on a reorganization of the department’s budget office, which arguably interacts with Capitol Hill more than any other arm of the department.

What’s more, during a recent budget hearing, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., the chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees K-12 spending, said he doesn’t understand why DeVos reupped her ask for choice programs that Congress was already poised to nix.

Meanwhile, Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., the chairman of the House appropriations committee, chided DeVos about the lack of coordination and communication between House staff and her department—a problem he said he’s had with Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross’ staff as well.

Michele McLaughlin, the president of the Knowledge Alliance, which advocates for using research in policy and practice and a one-time aide to former Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said it’s not a big surprise that Republicans in Congress weren’t taken with DeVos’ budget pitches.

Both Cole and Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who oversees education appropriations in the Senate, represent relatively rural states where school choice often doesn’t get the traction it does elsewhere.

“I’m sure they are very discouraged,” McLaughlin said of DeVos and her staff. “Whether they’re more discouraged than any other year, I don’t know.”

But Frelinghuysen’s remarks to DeVos were more striking, McLaughlin said: “That clearly looked like it had some backstory to it.”

One Republican source noted that, as a major GOP donor, DeVos had long-standing relationships with congressional leaders, including House Speaker Paul Ryan. The source is surprised that those lawmakers haven’t done more to defend her.

To be sure, GOP lawmakers have stepped in to support her. For example, Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., defended the secretary against Democratic attacks at last week’s hearing, saying he supported her move to consider changes to Obama-era discipline guidance.

‘If I Could Snap My Fingers’

DeVos, too, hasn’t exactly been brimming with praise for the Hill.

“Clearly if I could snap my fingers and things would happen with that body up there, there’s lots of things that I would tell them to do,” she said in an interview with four reporters back in February. “Not only around choice. Lots of things.”

One of her biggest complaints: The Senate has been achingly slow to confirm the president’s nominees for key positions at the department.

“It really has been going on much too long. [There’s] a very, very high level of frustration around that,” she said. “We have many qualified, capable individuals waiting to come and contribute here, and they’re just messing around at that building on the Hill.”

Of course, DeVos isn’t the first secretary who didn’t always see eye-to-eye with members of her own party in Congress.

Arne Duncan, who lead the department for most of President Barack Obama’s tenure, locked horns repeatedly with powerful Democrats, including former Rep. David Obey, D-Wisc., the chairman of the House appropriations committee. Back in 2010, Obey sought to scrap some of Duncan’s favorite programs, including Race to the Top, the Teacher Incentive Fund, and charter school grants, to pay for an emergency funding bill to cover teachers’ salaries in the midst of the Great Recession.

When Duncan objected, Obey made it clear he didn’t have much sympathy, calling Race to the Top—Duncan’s signature program—"walking around money.”

Duncan also caught flak from Democrats for his school improvement grants, which called for dramatic steps like firing teachers and removing principals of low-performing schools.

Toward the end of his time as secretary, former Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who had been one of Duncan’s staunchest allies on the Hill, harshly criticized his waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act for jettisoning protections for vulnerable groups of students.

And, just before Duncan left office, Congress approved the Every Student Succeeds Act, which included a long list of prohibitions on the secretary’s role, many of which directly referenced Duncan’s actions and policies.

While it never got quite that personal with Margaret Spellings, President George W. Bush’s secretary of education, she wasn’t able to sell her plan to consolidate all of the federal programs aimed at high schools into a single block grant for states to a GOP-controlled Congress. She also couldn’t get Republicans on the Hill to bite on a school choice program that looked similar to the Trump administration’s pitch, or on new resources to improve math curriculum.

And the NCLB law that she helped shepherd over the finish line as a top domestic policy adviser in the White House became a prime target of the House Republican Study Committee, a conservative caucus headed up by now-Vice President Mike Pence, who at the time was an Indiana congressman.

Michael Yudin, a former official in the Education Department under Secretary of Education Arne Duncan who also worked for several Democratic senators, remembered his own boss’ disagreements with Congress on the waivers. “No one loved what we did” on waivers in Congress, he recalled.

But Yudin said DeVos needs to grasp that “you can’t move anything in Washington” without trust. “You have to be responsive to members of Congress and work on those relationships,” he said.

This article has been updated to sharpen details about DeVos’ campaign donation activities.

AP File Photo by Andrew Harnik

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