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Can Trump's Disability Czar Be Trusted?

Like most of Trump's appointees, Melissa Ortiz is a vocal opponent of the federal agency she's about to run.
Melissa Ortiz disability Trump

Though they don't often make headlines, commissioners of smaller government agencies have an outsized influence in the lives of marginalized groups in the United States. Disabled Americans are particularly dependent on federal programs to guarantee their basic civil rights and access to public spaces, education, work, housing, and more. Who will work under President Donald Trump to make the lives of disabled Americans better?

Last week, we got one of our first answers, when Melissa Ortiz was appointed commissioner of the Administration on Disabilities at the Administration on Community Living. Ortiz became visible in 2016 as a disabled Republican who morphed from an anti-Trump Ted Cruz supporter to a cheerleader for Trump. Now she’s about to assume one of the most important advocacy jobs on disability rights in the federal government.

The ACL is a small agency of a couple hundred people housed within the Department of Health and Human Services, which has around 80,000 people. It was founded in 2012 by then-Secretary Kathleen Sebelius as a way to pull together existing operations dealing with aging and disability. Sharon Lewis, who was one of the ACL co-founders and commissioner of the Administration on Developmental Disabilities under Sebelius, tells me over the phone that she and the other founding political appointees "believed that we could create a space that recognized the needs of people who are aging and people with disability [without] diminishing the unique status and needs of those communities." She was part of team that believed they could collaborate across communities to make them "stronger together."

That team, according to Lewis, functioned as internal advocates within the federal government for the elderly and for people with disabilities. "The ACL supports programs," Lewis says, "that all have the fundamental shared mission of empowering older adults and PWDs and their families to be part of our broader community.” She cites Meals on Wheels, Independent Living Centers, the Area Agencies on Aging, state councils on developmental disabilities, and many other programs from diverse agencies that consist of locally run branches of national networks, all supported and coordinated by the ACL.

The commissioner—the role that Ortiz will fill—has direct oversight over the majority of programs connected to disability, including the nationwide Protection and Advocacy Network, University Centers for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, and many more. The commissioner decides (or at least oversees the process that decides) who receives grants, while pushing more broadly for more support and funding within the federal government. As Lewis puts it, "The President's Fiscal Year 2018 budget did not propose to provide adequate resources for some of the programs under the ACL." She hopes any new commissioner would act to explain the importance of those programs to the White House.


Which brings us to Melissa Ortiz, who, in an op-ed for Time magazine and in multiple interviews during and after the 2016 presidential election, has publicly rejected a federal role for disability. Most notably, last January, long after the votes were counted, Ortiz planted her flag as a Trump supporter in Time, writing that she voted for Trump because she believes in "limited government, three equal branches that include a non-activist Supreme Court, and laws that protect innocent life from conception until natural death." In other words, she's espousing a typical Republican viewpoint.

One section of her January op-ed, though, stands out, now that we must assess Ortiz's role in the federal government. She wrote: "I want the smallest possible federal structure with states and communities allowed to function as they were intended: to care for their own, disabled or not." That's a tricky sentence to parse, given Ortiz's new role overseeing federal structures. Lewis tells me (speaking generally and not commenting specifically on Ortiz) that, in the network of federal agencies, most decisions are made at the local level already, so there's no real conflict on a decision-making basis; local communities already aren't told what to do from D.C., but they do get coordination among agencies and some financial help. Still, if Ortiz's job is to advocate for people with disabilities inside the ACL, the Department of Health and Human Services, and Washington, D.C. more generally, she seems to have already placed herself in opposition to her job.

A surprising number of Trump appointees seem to have been chosen because they are opposed to the core function of their offices.

I couldn't get Ortiz to comment by phone or email. In questions I submitted, I asked specifically about her statements opposing federal disability programs, but was told by a spokesperson that it was too soon for Ortiz to be ready to speak to the media. Instead, I was sent a short statement that asserted Ortiz's commitment to "improving opportunities for people living with the full spectrum of disabilities."

As we've seen at the highest levels of the administration, a surprising number of Trump appointees seem to have been chosen because they are opposed to the core function of their offices. Administrator Scott Pruitt of the Environmental Protection Agency doesn't seem to want to protect the environment. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson doesn't seem especially interested in diplomacy. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos spends more time talking about privatizing education than she does working to improve public education. And, of course, the head of the Department of Justice, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, seems more committed to pure punishment than to anything I would characterize as justice.

My concern is that rather than appoint competent Republican administrators—and there are lots, many of them thriving in the non-profit sector, many with long resumés from the Bush administration or Congressional staff positions—we're going to see this pattern continue. Ortiz, a person who took to the media to proclaim her ideological opposition to federal oversight, is now in charge of federal oversight. We can only hope that her inflammatory public statements about not voting with her "lady parts" or her wheelchair were just meant to inflame, and now she'll get down to the business of governing.