WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, Florida's longest-serving and most influential member of Congress, whose skill at obtaining federal money has been a boon to the state but also a source of controversy, said Wednesday he will retire when his term ends in 2014.
In a telephone interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Young, 82, cited his health and a desire to spend more time with family. Young also recalled a conversation years ago with Sen. John Stennis in which he asked the Mississippi Democrat when Young would know it's time to leave.
"You'll know when it's time," Stennis told him.
"I'm taking that advice now," said Young, who has been at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center since Friday because of a back injury. Young told House Speaker John Boehner of his decision Wednesday and said his injury might keep him away from the Capitol for a couple of weeks.
"I don't know that I would pick out one thing," he added of his decision. "It's a lot of things. My family, my job, my rehabilitation from my back."
But Young is also frustrated with partisan gridlock. "It seems there's too much politics. It's a different Congress."
Young seemed increasingly out of step with the changing climate of Washington, a sharper brand of partisanship fed by a 24/7 news cycle. Though his own rhetoric adopted a harder tone in recent years, particularly toward President Barack Obama's policies, Young had a history of working closely with Democrats in his role as a top appropriator. Last week, he broke with most Republicans and said he would vote for a budget resolution that did not attempt to dismantle the president's signature health care law, though Young was criticized for not standing up sooner or louder.
In candid comments about the sway the tea party has over Boehner, Young said last week: "He withstood the pressure for a long time. He finally has agreed to the outspoken minority of his conference. And they're pretty much in charge right now."
On Wednesday, Young said he appreciated the spirit of his colleagues. "I love every one of these guys. They're doing what they think is right. That's what I did."
Young's announcement sets the end date for a 52-year political career that saw him rise from being one of a handful of Republicans in the Democrat-controlled Florida Senate to the current longest-serving Republican in either chamber of Congress. He has served with eight U.S. presidents and overseen the full House Appropriations Committee and its defense subcommittee. When Republicans reclaimed the House in 2010, Boehner granted Young a waiver from term limits on leadership posts to control the subcommittee again. He still holds the post.
Over his career, Young brought hundreds of millions of dollars in earmarks back to the Tampa Bay area — money for roads, beaches and colleges. He almost single-handedly built up a defense contracting industry in the area, creating jobs.
But Young was also seen as a symbol of government spending gone amuck. He was a frequent target of government watchdog groups, who pointed to his prowess as a need for reform. In 2010 alone, Young sponsored or co-sponsored $128 million in spending, more than anyone else in the House. He was always quick to recite the clause in the Constitution that says Congress controls the purse: "Article 1, Section 9 is very specific" and he touted his success in campaigns.
Earmarks, now banned, were a fraction of the overall federal budget, but critics said they enticed lawmakers to approve higher spending to ensure their pet project would get funding and shifted power to special interests with means to hire lobbyists. Some former Young aides have gone to work as lobbyists for defense contractors, and Young's campaign coffers swelled with donations from people connected to the industry.
He drew additional scrutiny in 2006 when it was reported the wife of one of his three sons had gotten a job as a lobbyist and had arranged meetings between her defense contractor clients and her father-in-law. In 2008, the Times reported how millions in earmarks went to companies his sons worked for, though Young denied he had anything to do with their employment and said he supported the projects out of merit.
Politically, Young held a seat for the GOP that leans slightly Democratic. His pending retirement scrambles the dynamics of the 2014 election.
Democratic lawyer Jessica Ehrlich already is running, but an open race is certain to attract additional candidates.
Democrats in Washington and Florida had become aggressive toward Young in recent years, casting him as an out of touch career politician. Last summer, a liberal activist approached Young and asked him to support raising the minimum wage. Young's reply — "Get a job" — was caught on video and spread across the Internet.
Young said he will serve out his term and vowed "to do the best I can for the next year and three months."
Young's health has been an open question in recent years as he has become frail with age. It is common to see him pushed on to the House floor in a wheelchair. Other times he walks with a cane.
He traces his current back trouble to injuries suffered in a plane crash in 1970, when he was serving as a state senator.
Young was returning to Tallahassee from a fundraising dinner in St. Petersburg when the small plane he was in went down. Traveling with Young was Tom Slade, who would later lead the state Republican Party, and Slade's wife, Corkey.
A report in the Evening Independent put it this way: "The night was foggy and overcast. Visibility was poor. Young sensed something was wrong. Then the plane plunged into a field of small oak trees, about 3 miles short of the airport but directly on the approach lane."
A fire broke out in the tail section and Slade kicked open the emergency door, jumping out with his wife. Young dove on top of them. The pilot followed.
Then the plane exploded.
Young had long overdue back surgery in summer 2011 and was dropped on the hospital floor in a follow-up visit, extending his rehabilitation.
A long and passionate advocate for the military, Young made national news a year ago when he came out against the war in Afghanistan. His change of heart was triggered by the death of U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Matthew Sitton, who was killed with another paratrooper by an improvised explosive device, or IED. The episode chilled Young because months earlier Sitton had emailed the lawmaker seeking help.
"As a brigade, we are averaging at a minimum an amputee a day from our soldiers because we are walking around aimlessly through grape rows and compounds that are littered with explosives," Sitton wrote. "The morale and alertness levels on our patrols are low and it is causing casualties left and right."
Young called for the troops to come home immediately, a dramatic departure not only from his past views but also from the views of most Republican leaders.
"I can't find a whole lot right about what's happening in Afghanistan," Young said during a 2012 congressional hearing in which he read Sitton's email.
Young's control of the congressional purse gave him influence with top military leaders and he was not afraid to use it — in ways large and small and often with the aid of his wife, Beverly. Mrs. Young was ejected from the House gallery during the 2006 State of the Union address because she wore a T-shirt that read "Support the Troops — Defending Our Freedom." In the hall outside she argued with officials, who had also ejected antiwar demonstrator Cindy Sheehan, that she was not staging a protest.
"Wait until the president finds out," she said in an interview afterward.
Last year, the Youngs took up the cause of a Marine gunnery sergeant whose legs had been blown off by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. The young man had been stationed in Okinawa before going to Afghanistan, and he was still being charged for his living quarters there as well as for temporary housing in Maryland. Young got the situation fixed.
"We raised a little bit of a fuss," Young told the Times at the time, smiling.