Bruce Evans may be one of the last remaining staffers of a Senate that is slowly fading into the rearview mirror of history.
His list of influencers reads like a checklist of the chamber’s all-time most prominent Republican members. Evans learned tenacity from the late Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, tried to keep up with the intellect of former Sen. Slade Gorton of Washington, and was taught how to connect to constituents by former Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana.
That’s not even to mention the household he grew up in. His father, Republican Daniel J. Evans, served as a state representative in Washington from 1956 to 1965 and governor from 1965 to 1977. In 1983, he was appointed to fill the Senate seat left vacant by the death of Democrat Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson. He went on to win a special election that November and served out the remainder of Jackson’s term, leaving in 1989.
As the departing staff director for the Senate Appropriations Committee under Chairman Thad Cochran — who left Congress earlier this month amid health issues — Evans got to witness firsthand the decline of one of the most important powers bestowed upon Congress by the Founding Fathers.
Sign of the times
In many ways, the issues that have plagued the government spending debate for decades are a microcosm of the larger dysfunction that has crippled Congress as a whole, a culture that Stevens, Gorton and Burns were largely able to avoid.
“We’re just the symptom that presents itself every year,” Evans said in a recent interview.
The bitter political environment has made it nearly impossible for Democrats and Republicans to pass legislation without partisan policies creating major roadblocks. Senators looking to earn accolades with their respective political bases or score momentary fame are routinely exercising their ability to slow — or even halt — legislative work in the chamber.
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And as leaders in both the House and Senate seek to limit the more open, freewheeling debate of years past, the opportunity to amend legislation once it reaches the floor is becoming the exception as opposed to the rule.
Without votes on amendments, Evans said it becomes more difficult for rank-and-file members to try to put their “thumbprint” on the bills, ultimately making it harder to pass spending measures.
“As long as I’ve been involved in appropriations, it was never easy,” he said. “What I don’t think would really serve the institution well is if folks decide it is just all too difficult and that we should give up on it or do it every other year … instead of doing the hard work of making all the thousands of individual choices about funding individual programs.”
Talk to any lawmaker about an omnibus and they are quick to cite the litany of problems that a massive spending bill presents.
Members are given a short amount of time — sometimes days or hours — to review a thousand-page bill, which lawmakers say makes it nearly impossible to adequately oversee the trillions of dollars in federal spending each year.
As fewer measures make it to the Senate floor, advocacy and special interest groups routinely view an omnibus as the last opportunity to move sometimes-critical legislation. Similarly, members on both sides of the aisle try to hitch their pet project bills to a vehicle viewed as a must-pass measure.
“The more the authorizing process … happens on a regular basis, the more it would enable us to do what we do without onboarding every single policy dispute and focusing on allocation of money, which is how the system was designed,” Evans said. “The fewer opportunities advocates have elsewhere to advance their policies … the more they’ll come to the appropriations process because at least they’ve got a slugger’s chance of getting something into a bill that gets across the president’s desk.”
But the growing trend presents deeper problems.
Appropriators — who once held the most coveted position on Capitol Hill — complain privately that their roles are undermined by leadership’s involvement in the process of crafting an omnibus bill. And staffers, particularly in the Senate, are increasingly lacking the necessary skills gained through navigating the chamber’s complex floor procedures.
“When we did get bills to the floor, our muscle memory both as bill managers on the floor and as staff is a little weak, just based on the lack of repetition,” Evans said. “The more we do it, hopefully, the more trust builds that we can, in fact, have some votes on amendments on appropriations bills on both sides.”
While it’s easy to pinpoint the problems, it’s much harder to find a solution. Lawmakers and aides say until the political environment improves the “legislate by omnibus” mentality will continue.
But the rise in prevalence of the more extreme wings of both parties is overpowering practical-minded lawmakers who are often relied upon to help advance legislation, as well as undermining a process that requires a basic commitment from all 100 senators to function properly.
“It’s tough to legislate restraint,” Evans said. “Members [and] staff think you can get rewarded more quickly, at least in the short term in this day and age, by really taking a relatively modest issue to the mattresses.”
“There are always folks who are willing to leverage their full senatorial rights for certain things appropriately. I just think there’s more of that that happens on issues that maybe don’t warrant it,” he added.
Thrown in the deep end
Like many staffers, Evans first arrived in Washington, D.C., eager to enter the often less-than-glamorous world of congressional work but more enticed by the social benefits it afforded the many 20-somethings that inhabit it.
“There were young people from all over the country here and I’ll be darned if you couldn’t go to the beach house every weekend and have a good old time and play softball on the [National Mall],” he said. “Frankly, it was a lot of those things that were particularly important early in life that kept me here.”
But Evans was soon thrust into the harsh reality of working in the federal government. About a month after he started as a staffer to Alaska Sen. Frank H. Murkowski in 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker crashed in the Prince William Sound, spilling millions of gallons of oil into one of the state’s most picturesque locations.
Evans traveled to Alaska with Murkowski and traversed the state, hearing from constituents whose livelihoods were affected by the incident.
“It was a good wake-up call that there are fancy speeches and nice lunches and that sort of thing around here, but some very important, difficult work that these folks do and try to be responsive to their constituents,” he said.
Evans would go on to hold a number of other positions in the chamber, including several on the Appropriations Committee. He eventually came to serve under Cochran and since 2015 has held the top staffer position on the panel.
His word, his bond
Senators and aides are quick to tout his influence. While Cochran was battling ongoing health problems last year, senators say they routinely met with Evans and trusted that his word was as good as if it came from the chairman himself.
“It was my job to reflect his priorities, his way of being — something I tried to do from the beginning and hopefully got better at it over time as I got to know him better and he got to trust me more,” Evans said. “He’s a pretty easy guy to follow, just because of who he is and how he treated people.”
He said Cochran taught him how to listen — a trait the senator was famous for among his colleagues and one that is particularly crucial as an appropriations staffer.
“Our job is to ask sharp questions … but you’re duty bound to listen to the answer as well,” Evans said. “I’ve had some experience with folks who love to ask tough questions but didn’t want to stick around to hear the answer. They just wanted to get on with the next one. That’s not an attitude that Sen. Cochran would ever want to develop on this committee.”
And while Evans is still undecided on his next move, one interaction that may stick with him is a discussion with a constituent he spoke with during the trip to Alaska after the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
“It was his biannual trip to the city, this city of ten people and a general store to pick up a couple 100 pounds sacks of flour and go back,” Evans recounted. “Things that were early eye-openers about the diversity of the American population and the diversity of interests. Somehow you’ve got to represent all those people interests.”
“The ability to get out and travel and see different constituencies over time, I wish I’d been able to do more of it, frankly,” he added.