Elected: 1970, 22nd term.
Born: December 15, 1930, Harmarville, PA
Home: Indian Shores
Education: St. Petersburg H.S.
Professional Career: Aide, U.S. Rep. William Cramer, 1957–60; Insurance executive.
Family: married (Beverly) , 6
Bill Young, a Republican first elected in 1970, has a genial, generally non-confrontational style that fits with his longstanding service on the Appropriations Committee, but that contrasts sharply with his younger, more aggressive GOP colleagues. Young, the most senior Republican in the House, announced on Oct. 9, 2013, that he would not seek reelection in 2014 after 22 terms in the House. Only Michigan Democrats John Dingell and John Conyers have more seniority than he does.
Young grew up poor in a Pennsylvania coal town. His first home was a shotgun shack that was swept down a river when he was 6 years old. At 16, he was shot in a hunting accident. The family moved to Florida, and Young dropped out of high school to support his ill mother by hauling concrete blocks and mixing mortar. At age 25, he applied for a job as an insurance salesman and ultimately ran a successful insurance agency. In the 1950s, he worked for St. Petersburg’s first Republican congressman, William Cramer, and got the politics bug. Young was elected to the state Senate in 1960, at age 29, and back then, was the lone Republican in the body. When Cramer ran for the U.S. Senate in 1970, Young ran for his House seat and won.
Young has a moderate to conservative voting record, and he became more moderate on economic issues after his party regained control of the House in 2011. He has joined Democrats on legislation to raise the minimum wage and extend unemployment benefits, and has championed measures to improve federal responses to oil spills.He was also among a small group of Republicans who came out in early October 2013 in favor of passing a budget resolution stripped of a controversial provision defunding President Obama's health care law. Conservative hard-liners had insisted on adding the provision even though, as expected, the resulting partisan standoff with the White House led to an unpopular government shutdown.
But none of his actions drew as much attention as his unexpected announcement in September 2012 that the United States should withdraw troops from Afghanistan as quickly as possible. “I just think we’re killing kids that don’t need to die,” he told the Tampa Bay Times editorial board, reversing years of support for the war. He cited as a factor in his decision a letter he had received from a soldier whose brigade was averaging one amputee a day because of explosive devices. MSNBC host Rachel Maddow and liberal activists applauded Young’s move, saying they hoped it could lead to a change in U.S. policy. But it did not trigger a groundswell from other Republicans.
Early on in his House career, Young got a seat on Appropriations, where he worked closely with Democratic chairmen through many years Republicans were in the minority. When his party won control of the House in 1994, Young did not rise to full committee chairman though he had the seniority to do so. Then-Speaker Newt Gingrich passed over him, as well as two more senior Republicans, for being too accommodating to Democrats. With some reason: After 34 years as a minority-party legislator, Young’s instincts were bipartisan. “I came into the majority party with this strong conviction that every member of Congress has been elected by their constituents and should be given respect,” he said at the time. But he certainly was not left powerless. He assumed the chairmanship of the defense appropriations subcommittee, giving him considerable sway over U.S. defense spending. In that role, he worked to produce bipartisan appropriations bills out of the spotlight.
In 1998, Young considered retiring, but at the end of the year, he finally got the full committee gavel. Three days after the November election, when Republicans suffered stinging losses, Gingrich decided to resign as speaker. In the subsequent leadership reshuffling, Young took over as Appropriations chairman from Bob Livingston of Louisiana. He stayed in the job six years, until 2004, the maximum allowed under GOP rules. During the Bush era, Young was often caught between White House demands to hold down spending and the rank and file’s enormous appetite for earmarks, the special projects inserted into spending bills for home districts. For the most part, he came down on the president’s side, but he demurred when the administration tried to get him to end earmarking altogether. An appropriator at heart, he also chafed at various attempts by the Budget Committee to impose caps on spending. Ever the bipartisan conciliator, he refused repeated demands from the Republican leadership to reduce the number of projects for Democratic appropriators.
He regained the chairmanship of the Defense Subcommittee in 2010, after the GOP prevailed in House elections. He has taken an avid interest in Florida’s many military installations. MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, across the bay from St. Petersburg, is the headquarters of Central Command and Special Operations Command. In recent years, he pushed through a $25 million intelligence and operations center and $78 million for a conference center for SOCOM, as well as $31 million for more family housing. Another of Young’s special projects has been the bone-marrow donor program, originated by Dr. Robert Good of All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg. In 2010, Taxpayers for Common Sense reported that Young received $90.5 million in earmarks that he alone requested, more than any other House member that year. But he was in the difficult position of doing his job without earmarking, a practice that is now banned in the House. “I go by the rules, whether I agree with them or not,” he told The Washington Post in February 2011.
Before the ban, Young’s earmarking was legendary, and he was not immune to controversies surrounding the practice. In 2008, the St. Petersburg Times reported that he had directed $45 million to defense contractor Science Applications International Corp. after the company hired his 20-year-old son, Patrick, as a security administrator, even though Patrick had only a GED and scant work experience. The newspaper also reported that Young had directed $28 million over nine years to another company that had employed another son, Billy, 23, for almost a year. The senior Young said that the companies got the earmarks on merit, not because they hired his children. In 2009, Young again came under scrutiny as one of seven lawmakers who steered hundreds of millions of dollars in largely no-bid contracts to clients of the lobbying firm PMA Insurance Group while accepting large campaign donations from those companies. The House Ethics Committee cleared them of wrongdoing in 2010.
Young pays close attention to veterans’ issues. In the 1970s, he persuaded Congress and President Ford to build the Bay Pines Veterans Medical Center in St. Petersburg, now the fourth largest veterans’ hospital. Since the Iraq War began in 2003, Young and his wife, Beverly, have visited wounded soldiers almost every week at military hospitals, including Walter Reed Army Medical Center and Bethesda Naval Hospital. Sometimes they found care lacking—a soldier sitting in a pool of urine, a sergeant’s brain surgery delayed because of malfunctioning equipment—and they regularly complained to Gen. Kevin Kiley at Walter Reed and others officers. In 2007, The Washington Post published a series of stories about wretched conditions at the facility, which led to reforms.
The trend toward Democrats in Pinellas County for years has not posed a threat to Young. His 2012 opponent, 38-year-old Democratic attorney Jessica Ehrlich, sought to make an issue of his age, saying in one campaign spot, “Bill Young is a nice man, but after 42 years in Congress, he’s lost touch.” He made news when he told someone asking him about a minimum wage increase to “get a job” and reported two break-ins at his house, though police found no signs of forced entry. Young still prevailed, 58%-42%.
His retirement sets up a competitive contest for a successor next year. Republicans tried to fortify the district in the last two rounds of redistricting by carving out the African-American neighborhoods of St. Petersburg and putting them into a Democratic district across Tampa Bay. But the predominately suburban 13th is still evenly divided between the parties, and without the advantage of a long-serving incumbent, Republicans will have to work to hold it in 2014.