President Trump announced Thursday that the administration will back off a proposed cut in funding for the Special Olympics, after a nationwide outcry and complaints from members of both parties in Congress.
“The Special Olympics will be funded. I just told my people,” Trump said before he left the White House for a rally in Michigan.
Congress annually considers budget matters that total trillions of dollars, but Education Secretary Betsy DeVos became the focal point of a political firestorm over the Trump administration’s proposal to eliminate a grant of about $18 million to the Special Olympics.
That struck a raw nerve with lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
Before the president’s announcement, emotions were again running high on Thursday, as DeVos testified before a Senate appropriations subcommittee about the Education Department’s proposed cuts across a wide range of programs. Many received attention, but Special Olympics was again singled out as DeVos sparred with Sen. Dick Durbin (R-IL), when he asked if she personally approved the cut.
“No I didn’t personally get involved in that…” DeVos said, as Durbin jumped in.
“Well I want to tell you whoever came up with that idea at (the Office of Management and Budget) gets a special Olympic gold medal for insensitivity,” said Durbin, expressing disbelief “that we can’t spend $18 million to support this dramatically successful venture.”
DeVos, as she did during earlier testimony this week before a House panel, reiterated her personal support for the program. But she also stressed that the administration’s overall budget needs to be responsible to taxpayers.
“Let’s not use disabled children in a twisted way, for your political narrative,” DeVos said to Durbin. “That is just disgusting and it’s shameful.”
Durbin responded that he felt eliminating $18 million for the Special Olympics is “shameful.”
While there are numerous budget battles underway on Capitol Hill, this one quickly moved into the political spotlight. It’s also clear that Congress was not going to go along with the administration’s original plan for a $17.6 million cut to Special Olympics.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), who chaired Thursday’s budget hearing, led a U.S. delegation to the 2019 Special Olympics World Summer Games, which was completed last week in Abu Dhabi. He issued a statement noting his support for the program and that his home state of Missouri has the largest Special Olympics training facility in the world.
“Our Department of Education appropriations bill will not cut funding for the program,” he said in the statement.
His statement has received support from Maria Shriver, whose mother Eunice Kennedy Shriver, created what became the Special Olympics. Eunice Kennedy Shriver was the sister of President John F. Kennedy.
— Maria Shriver (@mariashriver) March 27, 2019
Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) said Thursday that he has no doubt that money for the Special Olympics won’t be cut. He noted he met last week with representatives of the Special Olympics.
“It’s such a marvelous program,” Raskin said in an interview with WTOP, pointing out that young people train for the event all year long, giving them a sense of purpose and belonging.
“It’s almost an evil thing to just say we’re going to target that program for people with special needs,” Raskin said of President Trump’s budget, adding that it also calls for billions of dollars more for the Pentagon than the Defense Department requested.
“Congress will definitely restore that money and even our Republican colleagues understand that they’ve got egg all over their face and they are running at 150 miles-per-hour away from the administration on this,” Raskin said.
Raskin said one of his Republican colleagues joked with him that he’d rather be talking about the release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report than this issue.
The issue has also taken social media by storm, with all kinds of tweets of support for the Special Olympics going out.
“Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” This is the Special Olympics oath. @BetsyDeVosED, the athletes, including my son that are on my Special Olympics team could teach you a thing or two about courage, determination, and kindness. #SpecialOlympics pic.twitter.com/NRakXy8Fjd
— Jackie June, NBCT (@LearJackie) March 27, 2019
Look, I’m not perfect but at least my obituary won’t say, “and in 2019, he defunded the Special Olympics.”
— Conan O’Brien (@ConanOBrien) March 28, 2019
Others point out, as DeVos has, that Special Olympics gets private funding.
The Special Olympics, by the way, is a private charity with $61.3 million in net assets that gets only 10% of its funding from taxpayers and enjoyed a $1.8 million surplus in FY2016.
— Matt Wolking (@MattWolking) March 28, 2019
“I hope all of this debate encourages lots of private contributions to Special Olympics,” DeVos testified on Capitol Hill on Thursday.