What can be done about Trump’s Cabinet nominees?

Ever since Trump was elected I’ve been meaning to write some posts about what can be done to oppose him and his administration in a constructive and effective way. There’s a lot of ground to cover here so I will try to write some addtional posts. The most pressing issue is in relation to Trump’s Cabinet confirmation hearings, so I wanted to share some information related directly to this. In particular, I’m going to focus on Betsy DeVos, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education.

Opposing Betsy DeVos shouldn’t be a partisan issue

In hearings yesterday, DeVos demonstrated that she couldn’t understand, let alone answer effectively, softball questions in relation to education issues. Of particular concern to many of my U.S. friends is that she doesn’t understand how IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) works. IDEA is the federal law that guarantees disabled children access to education and DeVos thinks compliance with the law should be left up to the states:

Disability policy in the U.S. has historically been an area of considerable bipartisan consensus. The Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act were both signed by a Republican President (George H.W. Bush). IDEA’s precursor was signed into law by Republican President Gerald Ford. It was amended and updated in 2004 by another Republican President, George W. Bush.

Trump's Cabinet nominee for Sec of Ed doesn't know what IDEA is. Here, President George W. Bush greets Kyle Stevenson during signing ceremony for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 in the Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building

President George W. Bush greets Kyle Stevenson during signing ceremony for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 in the Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building

Republicans also have disabilities and have disabled children or grandchildren – they should oppose DeVos’ nomination to Trump’s Cabinet both vigorously and loudly.

There are approximately 65 million disabled children worldwide. Only half of them have access to schooling. With still a long way to go in creating truly inclusive education, the U.S. has until now been at the forefront of the movement to guarantee disabled children access to an education. The nomination of DeVos is a crystal clear indication that Trump is perfectly fine with rolling back reforms in this area.

You’re Canadian – why do you care?

  • For me personally – I have a keen interest in American history and politics – my Master’s Degree was in 20th century American political history. My thesis was a critique of the welfare “reform” enacted during the Clinton administration.
  • I have a lot of friends in the United States and many of them have or teach disabled children. Most of them are deeply concerned about the prospect of DeVos joining Trump’s Cabinet.

  • If the U.S. sneezes, Canada catches pneumonia. The U.S.-Canada relationship is complex and extensive. We are each other’s largest trading partner. Our economies are deeply intertwined. Trends established in the U.S. inevitably end up taking hold here. We’ve already had contenders for the Federal Conservative Party leadership like Kellie Leitch, openly embrace Trump’s rhetoric and ideas and with Kevin O’Leary now entering the contest we have our own, albeit less orange, millionaire reality T.V. personality in the leadership race.

How the Senate confirmation process works

An extremely skeletal outline:

  • President (or President-Elect) sends a nomination in writing to the Senate
  • The Senate starts the Advice and Consent procedures outlined in Article II of the Constitution
  • Committee hearings take place (this is the stage the DeVos nomination is at currently)
  • The committee can then decide to take no action (in which case the matter is submitted for a Senate vote) or they can vote on whether to report to the Senate favourably or unfavourably on the nominee, or to provide no recommendation at all
  • Unanimous consent of all Senators must apply to the time and date for debating the nominee (*note, Senate rules on this process were changed three years ago, as outlined below). If a senator does not agree, a hold is placed on the nomination. In 2016, Cassandra Butts, President Obama’s nominee for ambassador to the Bahamas, died of cancer. Her nomination had been on hold for more than two years. Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas admitted to her that his hold on her nomination was out of spite, a way for him to inflict personal pain upon President Obama.
  • Once a nomination has been considered by the Senate there is no limit placed on the length of the debate. However, if two-thirds of the Senate agree, cloture is invoked and debate is closed.
  • Following cloture, a simple majority of the Senate can then vote to confirm, reject, or take no action on the nomination.
  • *The process outlined above remains in place for Supreme Court nominees. However, three years ago, the Democrats invoked the so-called “nuclear option” and changed the rules for other nominees, meaning most nominees only need a simple majority vote.

What, if anything, can I do about Trump’s Cabinet nominees?

  • If you’re a U.S. citizen, call your Senator, regardless of their party affiliation or whether or not they serve on the committee conducting the hearing. All the Senators will eventually vote on DeVos’ nomination.
  • It’s vital that you call rather than (or in addition to) emailing, or using social media. I realize this is not an accessible option for some, so see the ideas below if you can’t use the phone.
  • Emily Ellsworth was a congressional staffer for two Republicans for 6 years and has put together a lot of incredibly useful, practical information on this.
  • When drafting the script or bullet points about what you want to say, try and tell a personal story. If you are disabled, have a disabled child or grandchild, teach disabled kids or are a therapist, personal stories are extremely impactful, so use them if you can.
  • If you are a Republican, make sure the staffer you speak to knows this. Emphasize that you see the education of disabled children as a bipartisan issue.
  • If your Senator is a Republican, make sure to mention the bipartisan history of disability policy, particularly in education, that I outlined above.
  • Research the Senator’s bio to find a personal connection. Do they have a disabled child or relative, for example?

I’m not able to use the phone – what now?

If you have a communication or other disability that prevents you from using the phone, this doesn’t mean you have no way of ensuring your Senator hears your opinion. Here are some ideas I have had in relation to how to get your voice heard. If you have other tips or ideas, feel free to share them in the comments.

  • If you are comfortable with a friend or relative making an initial call on your behalf, get them to do so. Have your friend/relative explain, “my friend is a constituent of Senator X and wishes to ensure the Senator is aware of their views on this issue but they have a communication disability and cannot use the phone.” Your friend/relative should obtain from the staffer an accessible method for you to contact them. For example, I have spoken with staffers in constituency offices here in Ontario and they have given me their direct email address and told me the subject heading to use so they know what the email refers to.
  • If you live near a district office, visit them in person or see if you can find someone willing to visit on your behalf. This is also a great way of checking how physically accessible your Senator’s office is. If you anticipate doing a lot of advocacy on a go-forward basis then making a personal connection with your Senator’s staff is a great idea! Take the office a plate of cookies. Explain that you (or your friend/relative) has a communication disability and that phone calls aren’t an option but that you want your (or their) voice heard.
  • Contact a local advocacy group and add your voice to theirs.

Think and act locally

One of the ongoing themes as far as effective advocacy is concerned is to focus your attention on your own environment. This still applies here, even though the context is federal politics. Yes, confirmation hearings are happening in D.C. but that doesn’t mean you have to go to D.C. or even contact your representatives’ D.C. offices. You get the most “bang for your buck” by contacting district offices and making connections with the staffers there.

Also, start developing relationships with local politicians and their staffers. This is important both now – because state politicians can be effective and vocal allies in relation to federal issues that have a local impact – but also for the future. Tim Kaine and Bernie Sanders (for example) were both mayors and a lot of local and state representatives use local and state politics as a stepping stone into federal politics. Impress upon your local community representatives how important disability policy issues are and it may have both an immediate and a long term payoff.

Use social media to share what you are doing with friends and family that also live in your area. Encourage them to do the same. Again, this is an issue on which we should be able to find common ground, regardless of political affiliation.

Acting locally never has a downside. Regardless of what happens at the federal level, you have the ability to improve your local connections and ultimately your community and its environment.

For those of us in Canada, show our friends in the U.S. moral support but also act locally – push back against the Trumpian rhetoric that Leitch, O’Leary and others are using, make it clear to candidates and elected representatives that rolling back disability policies and reforms isn’t an option, hold local, provincial and federal politicians accountable in relation to disability issues. Don’t assume what’s happening in the U.S. can’t happen here – we aren’t even as far along as the U.S. in relation to disability policies – so any rollback here has the potential to have an even more detrimental impact.

Below is a picture of President George H.W. Bush signing the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. I can’t provide a picture of the equivalent Canadian landmark because there is no federal protection for disabled Canadians. The Liberals promised to enact legislation when elected in 2015. We are still waiting.

President George H.W. Bush signing the Americans with Disabilities Act 1990

President George H.W. Bush signing the Americans with Disabilities Act 1990


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