Betsy DeVos' Nomination: A Chilling American Civics Lesson

Betsy DeVos testifies before the Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee confirmation hearing to be next Secretary of Ed
Betsy DeVos testifies before the Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee confirmation hearing to be next Secretary of Education on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 17, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

If confirmed as President Donald Trump’s Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos’ path to the Cabinet would represent a chilling civics lesson for the students whose educations she will shape in her new role.

At DeVos’ confirmation hearing, Sen. Bernie Sanders posed the question, “Do you think, if you were not a multi-billionaire, if your family has not made hundreds of millions of dollars of contributions to the Republican Party, that you would be sitting here today?”

DeVos’ road to power has been paved by her family fortune, invested as both carrot and stick as she has driven relentlessly to shape education policy to her personal views.

Opponents of her nomination have raised strong concerns about the controversial education policies she advocates that would shift public resources away from public schools and warn that she would weaken federal policies that protect vulnerable students from bias.

With little experience in the field, her sole qualification seems to be years of buying the policies and politics that serve her best. The Senators who are considering her nomination have received nearly $1 million in campaign contributions from the DeVos family, which may give the appearance that high-ranking government positions can be bought by and sold to the highest bidder – not the lesson our students should be learning.

Most major donors won’t admit what their money buys, but DeVos is not like most donors. She brags about it. In 1997, when the DeVoses were the largest source of soft money contributions for Republicans according to Betsy DeVos, she wrote in a Roll Call op-ed, “I have decided, however, to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now, I simply concede the point... We expect a return on our investment”.

She’s an heir to two enormous, Michigan-based family fortunes, one derived from her father’s auto parts business and the other through her spouse, Dick DeVos, whose father was a co-founder of the Amway multi-level marketing firm. Together, she and her family are worth more than $5 billion and have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to influence policy-making, spending generously on both lobbying and elections.

At the heart of her civic philosophy is a prime principle: if you can’t win playing by the rules, use your money to change them or ignore them.

DeVos has been working behind the scenes to give donors like her more influence in our politics by effectively removing regulation of campaign money. The strategy she funded led to a series of damaging Supreme Court decisions including the landmark Citizen United ruling, which made billionaires like DeVos far more important in American politics.

From Michigan, where DeVos served three terms as the GOP’s state party chair, DeVos worked to rig the rules in her favor another way by pouring money into races across the country to win Republican control of state legislatures at the time when new district lines were being drawn for state and federal offices. The success of the gerrymandering project DeVos funded allowed politicians and donors like DeVos to pick their voters instead of voters picking their politicians. In Michigan, the effort empowered the DeVos clan and the lawmakers they funded. Emboldened by their elevated status, they immediately passed “right to work” legislation that gutted the power of their biggest political opponent in Michigan, organized labor.

In addition to making direct campaign contributions, she’s organized and backed political non-profits to reward and punish state candidates across the country, based on how well their education positions aligned with hers. In Louisiana, for example, where privatization of public schools has been a live wire issue, DeVos and her organizations have invested more than $1.6 million in recent state elections. In Ohio, her groups spent $870,000 in state elections a decade ago despite a formal warning that they were breaking state laws. They were fined a total of $5.2 million. Years later the fines remain unpaid.

For decades, DeVos has put her money where her mouth is, rather than relying on the merits of her case to win favor. Again and again, she’s drawn on her family fortune to elevate her cause while reducing the voices of others. That’s probably not what you learned in your high school civics class about how we make policy in America, but it is the lesson of Betsy DeVos’ nomination to serve in Trump’s cabinet. When you want something in government, you buy it.