House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon raises his hand and crosses his middle finger over his index finger when asked how well he gets along with Rep. Bill Young, the top gun on the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.
“We are like this,” says McKeon, R-Calif., signaling they are close.
Young, R-Fla., gives a similar response when asked separately about his working relationship with McKeon: “It’s probably as good as it can get.”
These might merely be the polite, collegial answers of two congressional veterans. But other House lawmakers, aides to both men, and defense-budget watchers outside of Congress describe McKeon and Young as seeming to have a genuine mutual respect and a cooperative spirit in their roles in authorizing and appropriating roughly a half-trillion dollars in defense funding.
There have been few, if any, public clashes. However, lawmakers in both parties and others describe McKeon and Young as frustrated with political and budgetary limitations—exacerbated by the sequester—now placed on those roles.
“They are definitely both old school, but right now the whip hands are Paul Ryan and John Boehner,” said Gordon Adams, a former Clinton administration national security budget expert, referring to Budget Committee Chairman Ryan, R-Wis., and House Speaker Boehner, R-Ohio. “This is a totally political game, and the discipline comes from the top. In the old days the barons of defense could drive the traffic through any barrier; in this political and budgetary atmosphere, both are frustrated. They can work together, but they cannot drive the traffic.”
“Old school” is an oft-repeated description of Young and McKeon. “Not part of the lunatic fringe” is how one prominent House Democrat describes the duo, in a derogatory reference to GOP hard-liners. They are also both seen as two of a vanishing breed.
How much longer either will stay in Congress is the subject of speculation, and there is talk they both could be on their way out. Because of Republican term-limit rules, both men would have to obtain a waiver from House leaders to extend their chairmanships for another term, something Young has already needed to keep his gavel, both this term and last session.
Young has also been battling some health problems. But an aide says he is “gearing up earlier than ever” for yet another two-year term. At age 82, the Tampa-area lawmaker is the longest-serving Republican member of the House—he was first elected in 1970 and is now in his 22nd term. It’s a career that includes being chairman of the House Appropriations Committee from 1999 to 2005. He has been chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee since 2011, with several previous stints in the same job.
McKeon, 74, was first elected to the House in 1992. He became the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee in 2009, and the California lawmaker began serving as chairman in 2011 when Republicans regained control of the chamber. Of the rumors that McKeon might not run again in 2014, spokeswoman Alissa McCurley said, “Mr. McKeon has no plans to retire at this time.”
Indeed, colleagues see McKeon as the more aggressive political animal. One senior Republican on the Armed Services Committee even says that if he “had to go away for the weekend with one or the other, it would be with Bill Young.”
“He’s less driven by what happens across the street,” said the GOP lawmaker, in a reference to National Republican Congressional Committee headquarters located near the Capitol.
Ex-Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., himself a former chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, describes Young “as bipartisan a person as I can ever recall.” Dicks said one of the hallmarks of Young’s leadership was that “he really tries for unanimity on the committee.”
McKeon says of Young, “I have the greatest respect for him, and we’ve had that since I came here.”
Do they ever disagree? “Maybe,” offers Young. “But if we do, we work those disagreements out. We never have any battles on the floor, or votes to decide who is right and who is wrong. We always work it out.”
As they proceed with work on defense spending for fiscal 2014, Young says his committee staff and McKeon’s communicate almost daily. “You’ll find that our work and their work (in authorizing the funding) is going to be very, very compatible,” Young said. Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., a member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, said McKeon and Young seem to have a deep respect for each other, possibly because both over their careers have developed a broad perspective on the entire nation’s industrial base. But defense-funding expert Adams said the absence of power is frustrating to them.
“The appropriators have been trying to get back in the game for two years; it’s been hard. And McKeon does not have the clout or credibility to pull off what he would like,” said Adams.
Moran agreed. As he put it, “I think both of them share a frustration.”
This article appears in the June 14, 2013 edition of NJ Daily as Two Defense-Panel Chairmen Are Tightly Bonded.