Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Betsy DeVos has committed a massive public relations foible and is making it worse by refusing to own up to her mistake.
At issue – this time – for the bad-headline-magnet secretary of education are proposed cuts in her department’s budget that would impact the Special Olympics – in particular programs run at schools. These cuts are not new. In fact, DeVos has proposed cuts to the Special Olympics in her budgets for each year she’s been in office. And these cuts are part of a broader 12% decrease in the proposed education budget – a piece of the Trump administration’s efforts to cut the federal budget on non-defense spending. In each of the previous years, DeVos’ proposed cuts were rejected. And that was when Republicans controlled the House and Senate!
At a hearing on Tuesday, DeVos defended the proposed cuts this way: “I think the Special Olympics is an awesome organization, one that is supported by the philanthropic sector as well.” Which, if you read between the lines, translates to this: The Special Olympics doesn’t have a funding problem and, therefore, the federal government doesn’t need to spend money on it. Any money we pull out will immediately be covered by private giving.
This point is not wrong. People would almost certainly make up the difference if the federal government pulled out. But an administration’s proposed budgets for the various government departments are less about cold, hard numbers and more about what they believe their priorities to be and how they attempt to make good on them.
That’s why proposing cuts to the Special OIympics is politically disastrous for anyone – much less the secretary of education – to embrace.
The Special Olympics is something that literally everyone thinks is one of the good things we do as a country. It allows everyone the chance to compete. It is life-affirming. It is the sort of thing most people agree we should spend more money, not less money on.
And the truth of it is that we’re not even spending very much federal money on Special Olympics. Last year, Congress appropriated $17.6 million to Special Olympics programs. That’s almost nothing when you consider that the budget for the Department of Education in 2018 was more than $68 BILLION.
Which is why picking this hill to die on is political malpractice by DeVos. And I’m not even sure what to call her attempt – in the wake of her testy Capitol Hill appearance – to, uh, explain her position.
Titled “Secretary DeVos Corrects the Record on Trump Administration Support for Students with Disabilities,” the statement released on Wednesday reads, in part:
“It is unacceptable, shameful and counterproductive that the media and some members of Congress have spun up falsehoods and fully misrepresented the facts …
“…The Special Olympics is not a federal program. It’s a private organization. I love its work, and I have personally supported its mission. Because of its important work, it is able to raise more than $100 million every year. There are dozens of worthy nonprofits that support students and adults with disabilities that don’t get a dime of federal grant money. But given our current budget realities, the federal government cannot fund every worthy program, particularly ones that enjoy robust support from private donations.”
Sooooooo … the media and Democrats in Congress have “spun up falsehoods” about whether or not DeVos proposed cuts to the Special Olympics. But, she did propose cuts to the Special Olympics because “the federal government cannot fund every worthy program, particularly ones that enjoy robust support from private donations.”
The media reported the story accurately. DeVos, as she has done for each of the past two years, proposed cutting money for Special Olympics programs at schools out of her department’s budget. Democrats – and many Republicans – raised a stir. DeVos, backed into a corner by her own proposal, lashed out at the media for, uh, reporting on that proposal.
But wait! It’s gets even worse for DeVos! On Thursday afternoon, President Donald Trump overrode her proposed cuts to the Special Olympics in a back-and-forth with reporters. “The Special Olympics will be funded, I just told my people,” Trump said.
“I have overridden my people. We’re funding the Special Olympics,” he added.
DeVos spent the week defending indefensible cuts to a program everyone loves. Cuts that had zero chance of being implemented by a Democratic-controlled House. And then, when things went sideways, DeVos’ boss – aka the President of the United States – took a chainsaw and cut off the branch that she had edged out on.
What a disaster.