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Rep. C.W. Bill Young again commands defense spending, but ground has shifted

WASHINGTON — Power here is conveyed in many ways: the lawmaker surrounded by a cloud of reporters; the size or location of one's office; campaign accounts bursting with money.

The other day in a stuffy room on the Capitol's first floor, it showed in a more delicate form. As he listened to top military officers, U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young rolled a gavel in his right hand, an impassive but knowing caress.

The Republican takeover of the House has put the 80-year-old Pinellas County lawmaker back on top. Young once again commands the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the nation's defense spending.

But from his perch, the landscape is dramatically different.

The November election brought a wave of conservatives whose zeal for cuts extends to the defense budget, now more than half a trillion dollars.

And for the man whose career is defined by earmarks — hundreds of millions worth spread across Florida as bridges, buildings and roads — the upstarts have forced the once-unthinkable: a ban on political pork.

Time, it seems, stands ready to pass Young by or force him to adapt to a new order.

"I'm conflicted," he said of the external forces and his inclination to protect the military and conviction that bringing money home is a responsibility of office.

"I've had to learn how to change and how to live with change for all the time I've been in this business," said Young, in his 41st year and the senior Republican in either chamber of Congress.

"The changes we're going through now I believe in. I believe we're headed for financial disaster if we don't get control of our rising national debt."

The transition has not been smooth.

Two weeks ago, Defense Secretary Robert Gates effectively accused Young of protecting a pet project at the expense of more equipment for soldiers in Afghanistan.

"We should not put American lives at risk to protect specific programs or contracts," Gates said while appearing before the Appropriations Committee.

At issue is funding for Humvees. Gates said more are not needed, and he wants $863 million set aside for them to be shifted for intelligence gathering and other gear.

Millions were being awarded to Humvee maker AM General, which is Young's third-largest campaign contributor ($81,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics) and is represented by lobbyist Doug Gregory, Young's former chief of staff.

"It's a cheap shot," Young protested in an interview.

His office produced a letter from the Marine Corps calling for more Humvees, and Young said he was working on a compromise to meet both needs. He denied campaign contributions or lobbyists influenced him.

"That's just not the way I do business," he said.

Earmarks are a tiny fraction of overall federal spending but have become big symbols of waste. Lawmakers such as Arizona Rep. Jeff Flake have long called for a ban, but it did not reach a tipping point until the 2010 election, where candidates like Florida's Marco Rubio repeatedly railed against them. At the same time, a handful of ardent earmarkers retired.

Young remains one of the kings. In 2010 alone, he sponsored or co-sponsored $128 million, more than anyone else in the House. He is always quick to recite the clause in the Constitution that says Congress controls the purse: "Article 1, Section 9 is very specific."

Still, Young insists he will not work back channels to get his priorities funded, as some colleagues on both sides of the aisle are doing.

So much of Young's career has been staked on bringing money home for beach nourishment, colleges and defense contractors that the ban raises questions about his effectiveness.

"Some of what he's earmarked has been great, some's been terrible," said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who has long tried to excise pork from the budget. "In the long run, it's no net gain other than political gain for the members. So let's do it a different way for a while and see what happens."

Coburn is confident the old bulls can adapt. "Bill Young's a great guy," he said. "Nobody says defense is without waste. I can find $50 billion if they'll let me. But they'll do fine."

Young has witnessed lean years and his party's push for budget cuts before, including during his first stint as chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee, in 1995 under then-Speaker Newt Gingrich.

But the Pentagon budget has doubled over the past decade and now accounts for a fifth of overall spending. Many say it's time to take a hard look at defense spending, a debate that has caused upheaval among Republicans.

Defense hawks say talk of cuts are an affront to the men and women in Afghanistan and Iraq and foolish considering how China is investing in its military. But increasingly, some Republicans say the fiscal woes are too great to ignore.

"This deficit that we have threatens our very way of life, and everything needs to be on the table," Rep. Chris Gibson, a tea party-backed New York Republican and retired Army colonel, said at a recent budget hearing.

Sensing the shift, the White House instructed Gates to trim $78 billion from the budget over five years, including reducing the size of the Army and Marine Corps. The budget would still grow but not much more than inflation.

For 2012, Gates has asked for a $553 billion base budget, a slight increase plus $118 billion for Afghanistan and Iraq.

Young's job is to divvy up defense spending. But it's getting tougher because of pressure to make the pie smaller — or to keep it from shrinking too much.

"It will be a real challenge," he said, conceding it could be the toughest in his career, which includes chairing the full Appropriations Committee from 1999-2005.

His defense subcommittee has already tested the waters. It identified $15 billion in cuts for the current budget, which has still not passed Congress. That was mostly through eliminating delayed or stagnant programs and recapturing money that would have gone to earmarks.

A preview of the fight to come arrived on the House floor last month. It involved funding for an alternative engine for the F-35 combat jet, a long running special interest food fight pitting primary builder Pratt & Whitney against competitor General Electric.

Young wanted to maintain funding for both engines, contending it would be good in the long run.

But when the votes were counted, his side lost. Tea party Republicans carried the day.

Rep. C.W. Bill Young again commands defense spending, but ground has shifted 03/17/11 [Last modified: Friday, March 18, 2011 9:38pm]
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