The Salesman for Bush’s Plan

Posted February 7, 2003 at 6:22pm

When Commerce Secretary Don Evans works the halls of Congress these days, he’s selling two packages: the president’s economic plan, and himself.

“Look, in terms of economics, I understand our economy,” Evans, a longtime business executive, said Friday in an interview. “I’ve got a good feel for our economy. I understand, as somebody from the private sector, how our economy works.

“I mean, this isn’t something I’ve just read out of a textbook.”

Once one of the least visible of the Bush administration’s Cabinet secretaries, Evans has emerged in the past month as perhaps the lead figure in the White House’s efforts to bring the Congress in line behind the president’s proposals to spur the sluggish economy.

It’s not a role that falls naturally to a Commerce secretary, whose portfolio tends to be concentrated on trade and other international affairs of business.

But the post-election dismissal of two of the Bush economic team’s senior members — economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey and Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, who seemed never to have inspired any trust among lawmakers — thrust the transplanted Texan into a key role in the administration’s Capitol Hill sales job.

Part emissary, part missionary, Evans believes he can convince somewhat skeptical Members that he has seen what does and does not work through his 28 years in the business world — that he has, as he likes to say, “lived it” — and has the answers they will be looking for as they craft an economic plan in the weeks and months ahead.

“Evans is still an outside-the-Beltway guy. He ran a business, he’s honest and candid,” said Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), who suggested the Commerce secretary was a welcome departure from the more technocratic O’Neill.

Of Evans, Upton said, “He’s a direct conduit to the real world.”

For his part, Evans appears to see Congress as a kind of ideas-based version of the business world — one reason he suggests the transition from Wall Street boardrooms to the backrooms of Congress has been easy for him.

“It’s selling your ideas. It’s defending your position. It’s knowing your position and being able to support it — [that is,] why [the position] is a good idea,” Evans said.

In the interview, Evans seemed palpably frustrated by a reporter’s suggestion that Members are apt to rally more readily around a package that’s good for them politically than one that’s “good” economically. He referred back to President Bush’s campaign pledge to “change the tone” in the capital.

“The president, like me, does not believe this is a zero-sum game in this town,” Evans said.

The early groundwork has been intensive. The secretary’s aides estimate that he has pitched the economic package to nearly 70 lawmakers — either by phone or in person — in the past month.

In the narrow window of opportunity offered while Members were in town last week, Evans held briefings with the Main Street Coalition of GOP moderates and a separate collection of freshman lawmakers.

“It would be safe to say the Commerce secretary is raising his profile on the Hill,” said Rep. Jerry Weller (R-Ill.), who cited as many as four meetings he has been in with Evans in the past month alone — “much more contact than in the previous two years” that Evans has led Commerce.

If it’s an economic package Evans is selling to Congress, lawmakers have been just as eager to buy a commodity that Evans has not advertised at market: His decades-long personal friendship with Bush.

Lawmakers cited that relationship as a significant asset during last year’s debate over trade promotion authority, which was Evans’ unofficial coming-out party on Capitol Hill. That link is expected to become even more valuable to lawmakers as Congress debates the more politically thorny issue of how best to boost the economy.

“He’s a guy who is trusted, and a guy who can take a message directly to the White House,” said Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who suggested Evans had been “under-utilized” until recently.

Evans concedes that his strong friendship with Bush makes him a likely conduit for important information to and from lawmakers. “I think it’s only natural that I’m in a good position to share with the president the thoughts from the good Members on the Hill,” Evans said. “And I’ll do that, from time to time.”

But Evans stressed that critical information from the Hill is hashed out by Bush’s entire economic team — a group that includes not only the president and Evans, but Vice President Cheney, Glenn Hubbard, the chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, incoming Treasury Secretary John Snow and Steven Friedman, the president’s new economic adviser.

“I talk to the president frequently,” Evans said, “but [sharing information with the entire economic team] is the appropriate way to keep it organized and to be most effective and efficient in using everybody’s time.”

The relationships Evans forged in the TPA debate, not only with Republicans but also with moderate Democrats such as Rep. Cal Dooley (Calif.) and Sens. John Breaux (La.) and Max Baucus (Mont.), the Finance Committee’s ranking member, make it likely that the Commerce secretary will continue to spearhead the effort to pass the president’s economic package despite the arrival of Snow and Friedman, administration officials indicate.

It will be a tough slog, with some Republicans skittish about the long-term focus of the economic plan, its $674 billion price tag and its concentration on the financial markets.

Other Republicans are just as certain that the plan doesn’t go far enough. Weller and Upton, for instance, are both pushing for further accelerated depreciation for businesses — a proposal that enjoys significant support on Ways and Means.

Evans isn’t sure where all the support is going to come from, but he is confident that he knows exactly what the final package will look like: “Just like the president delivered it.”