Veteran Aides to Education Panels Bring Continuity to Changing Hill
Washington--Transition periods are times of uncertainty on Capitol Hill. As the nation awaits a new President's agenda, the Congress waits, too, for its new power configurations to emerge.
A crop of freshly elected House and Senate members organizes its offices and tries to assimilate the rules of the game. Veterans who have switched committee assignments bone up on the issues and study the possibilities.
It is a time of flux, so signs of continuity are prized--a couple of them by education interests in particular.
Two of the Hill's most veteran staff directors--with a combined total of more than 32 years of experience--will be steering the day-to-day operations of the House and Senate's major subcommittees on education.
That is a fact that some observers here say may give education a transition advantage, legislatively.
In John F. Jennings, who has directed the House Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education Subcommittee since 1967, and David Evans, chief Democratic aide of 10 years on the Senate Education, Arts, and Humanities Subcommittee, the field has two able exponents, they say, who are sensitive not only to politics but also to education's history.
"When you look at other Hill folks, whether members of Congress or committee staff, there are very few who have been through the development and reauthorizations of major programs like David and Jack have," says Michael D. Edwards, a lobbyist for the National Education Association.
Thriving in a 'Sloppy' Arena
"Their importance is not solely a function of their position," he adds. "Their expertise, their history of involvement, their judgment, and their tactical abilities have put both of them in a unique position in terms of furthering education legislation."
Both men, however, are unassuming about the influence they wield, preferring to speak instead of the job's "fascination."
David Evans, who joined the Senate subcommittee chaired by Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island in 1978, after stints as a governor's aide in Rhode Island and his home state of Nebraska, calls it "one of the most fascinating jobs anyone could want."
"When you walk in the door in the morning, no matter what amount of planning you've done and what kind of schedule you've set down, you really don't know what is going to happen," he says.
"Policymaking and government is a sloppy process," concurs Mr. Jennings, who is called Jack by most on Capitol Hill, "you don't have the neat, compartmentalized development that some of the textbooks would lead you to believe you do."
The House subcommittee director has devoted his entire professional career to that process. He moved into the Congressional arena the year he graduated from the Northwestern law school and one day after he was sworn into the Illinois Bar.
Hired in 1967 by Representative Roman Pucinski of Illinois, who was then chairman of the subcommittee, Mr. Jennings has served two other chairmen in his 21 years--Representatives Carl D. Perkins of Kentucky and Augustus F. Hawkins of California.
In 1980, he also became the counsel on education for the full House Education and Labor Committee, coordinating the activities of the chamber's two other education subcommittees--postsecondary and select education--as well as the elementary-, secondary-, and vocational-education panel.
For Mr. Jennings, who says that his "first love is history," being able to watch and play a role in government policymaking has been an8ideal vocation.
"It is so different from what you read in the history books," he says, "because history tends to intellectualize or sanitize the process, taking the life out of it."
Listening to Everybody
Much of that "life" comes from the constant barrage of people and interest groups that must be met with, listened to, and brought together.
As staff directors, Mr. Evans and Mr. Jennings oversee the development of bills before they are introduced and then steer them through hearings, staff negotiations, mark-ups, committee votes, floor debates, final votes, and House-Senate conferences.
Once a bill becomes law and a program is initiated, the subcommitees then have oversight responsibilities, making sure the programs are operating as intended.
The panels also keep an eye on the budget and appropriations process to ensure that once programs are authorized, they get funded.
"If people assume that we are an authorizing committee and that we are involved in just the authorizing process, they have a very narrow and inaccurate perception of what we do," says Mr. Evans.
On a given day, which typically stretches from early to late, the two staff directors will: communicate with their chairmen, direct their own staffs, handle requests from committee members and other members of the Congress, negotiate with the Education Department, answer questions from the press, and hear the views and complaints of--in Mr. Jennings's phrase--"a slew of lobbyists."
"One of the difficult things in my job," says Mr. Evans, "is realizing that a conversation that I'm having at 9 in the morning, may be a conversation I repeat six or seven times that day."
A 'Feel' for Politics
Through it all, says Mr. Jennings, one of the vital necessities is a "feel" for politics.
"Politics is pervasive," he says. "You can't deal with a bill without having some understanding of why someone is doing something. And most motivations are frequently rooted in politics."
He stresses also the need to listen to everyone--not just for the sake of "integrity," he says, but also for "practicality."
"If you don't deal with everybody in the beginning, you will in the end," he advises. "If you don't listen, then some group will find another Congressman to take their position. They will find another point of entry."
Both directors say that maintaining a close and confidential relationship with their chairmen is crucial.
"I measure everything by how Claiborne Pell would approach it," says Mr. Evans. That includes, he is quick to add, a deep interest in and involvement with education in Rhode Island.
"I always point out that, yes, Senator Pell is concerned about education throughout the nation--in every aspect and at every level," the Senate panel's director says. "But we first and foremost have to be concerned about the people who sent us here."
"The most important element on the Hill is to have the confidence of your chairman," agrees Jack Jennings. "There is no civil service, and there is no job security, so if you don't start with that ingredient, you can't do anything else."
Maintaining what has traditionally been a bipartisan consensus on the education subcommittees, the staff directors say, has become a more difficult task in recent years because of the rise of special-interest groups in the field and the loss of members eager to make education the centerpiece of their careers.
"The influence of special interests has grown so considerable over the decade I've been here that an effort to pinpoint a problem, and put a program together that is focused just on that problem, becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible," Mr. Evans says. "If you don't accommodate their interests each time, somehow they believe you are not sensitive to their concerns."
Mr. Jennings identifies political-action-committee money as an equal, though less visible, threat to to education legislation.
The rising cost of political campaigns, he says, has forced members of Congress to seek committee assignments that can potentially bring in enough money from political-action committees to finance their re-election campaigns.
"We've had vacancies on our committees for years, and we've had to accept temporary members," he says. "Part of the reason is that members go to committees where they can get more pac money."
The 'Third Choice'
In the House, each member may select two committees to hold a permanent seat on. If they want to be involved with other committees, they must take temporary positions.
"We are not getting members to choose our committee as their first choice," Mr. Jennings says. "People in education can't ignore that. They can't say it is not their issue."
He says education groups must become more involved in the debate over campaign-finance reform.
"In the 1960's, we had excellent members who came on this committee and made it their career," he notes, "John Brademas, Roman Pucinski, Lloyd Meads, Edith Green--people who were recognized as being outstanding members of the Congress."
"Within the last 10 years," he explains, fewer and fewer House members have followed in that tradition. "They will come to it as a third choice, or get the rules waived to allow them to sit in as temporary members because they still want to be involved."
"We do get some excellent members that way," he concedes. "But it is not their primary committee, and it is not as helpful to the process."
As they prepare for the onslaught of another legislative season, both directors characterize their jobs as something of a juggling act--but one they would not trade.
It is, says Mr. Jennings, "hypercharged but also very fascinating."
Mr. Evans admits that sometimes after a long day he has to remind himself of the job's "up" side.
And for him, as well as his House counterpart, much of the "up" comes from a sense of working for the public good. His father was the business manager of a state mental institution, he explains, and his mother worked there, too.
"I grew up in a family that was in public service," Mr. Evans says, "and I think probably from the very beginning I had an interest, because of them, in service."
Of his over-long and frustrating days, he says: "I try to look at what can happen to that young, disadvantaged girl or boy in a Chapter 1 program. I cannot lose sight of how vitally important that program, and the others, are to the future."