Public opposition to Betsy DeVos’ nomination as US secretary of education was so strong and well-organized that the Congressional telephone switchboard had its busiest day in history ahead of her confirmation vote, and senators’ mailboxes (and offices) were flooded with the messages from voters begging them to turn her down.
In the end, just two Republican senators crossed party lines to vote against DeVos—Maine’s Susan Collins and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski—while the remaining 50 Republicans voted in favor. A tie-break vote from US vice president Mike Pence ultimately ushered in US president Donald Trump’s most controversial and, by many measures, least qualified cabinet pick.
DeVos, who neither attended nor sent her children to public school, and whose family has never taken out a student loan, will now be tasked with a $70 billion budget and oversight of the 98,000 public schools where 90% of Americans get an education.
In addition to regular voters (both Democrats and Republicans) her confirmation faced fierce opposition from teachers’ unions and nearly 250 civil rights and education groups, as well as alumni from her own alma mater.
If most of the Republican senate won’t vote against a candidate as unpopular and unqualified as DeVos, then there’s little hope for the opposition to the rest of Trump’s billionaire cabinet picks, many of whom have previously sworn to destroy the agencies that they will be tasked with running.
In coming days, Senate Republicans are likely to vote in senator Jeff Sessions as attorney general, over the pleas of thousands of law professors and civil rights icon John Lewis. Tom Price, who wants to dismantle universal healthcare and thinks companies should be able to fire women for using contraception, is expected to get the official nod to run the US Department of Health and Human Services. And climate-change denier Scott Pruitt looks set run the Environmental Protection Agency. Labor Secretary nominee Andy Puzder remains the one wild card, and that’s because of his recent disclosure he employed an undocumented illegal immigrant.
Forget the Republican resistance on Capitol Hill—the US Congress so far is shaping up as the place where Trump’s more radical ideas get normalized, so they can become public policy down the line.
For the increasingly organized anti-Trump civilian movement in the US, the Senate’s DeVos vote is a painful reminder that there’s only so much that protests and “write your senator” marathons can do. Congress is firmly controlled by Republicans on both sides, which means that for Democrats, the 2018 mid-term elections may be the smartest battleground to focus on now.