Bill Adair column: Farewell to Bill Young, he made Congress work

Published Oct. 10, 2013

One of the last adults in the U.S. Congress is saying farewell. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, the Pinellas County Republican who rose to be chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, has decided not to seek re-election. In a telephone interview Wednesday, Young sounded bittersweet about his decision, saying he wanted to focus on his health and his family. I got choked up while I was interviewing him because I'm sorry to see him step down. At this moment in our political history, we need adults like Young to get Congress functioning again.

I've known Young since I arrived in the Tampa Bay Times Washington bureau in 1997. I wrote a lot about his time as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee from 1999 to 2005. He often let me sit in on meetings when his House colleagues, Pentagon officials, and even Queen Noor of Jordan came asking for money.

He ran the committee with a firm but gentle hand, working closely with the ranking Democrat, Dave Obey of Wisconsin. It was a time of growing partisanship in the Republican-controlled House under Tom DeLay and Dennis Hastert, but Young was reluctant to join in. When the GOP leadership asked him to penalize Democrats by denying funding for their projects, Young refused. He said the Democrats were as entitled to the federal money as Republicans were.

Young was a man of his word. I left the Times in June to become a professor at Duke University, but he called me — before he called House Speaker John Boehner — on Wednesday because he had promised 10 years ago that when he decided to retire, he would tell me first.

I noticed that his website still carries his official portrait, a painting that is a throwback to the traditions of Congress. It shows him standing proudly in front of the Florida and American flags. The ceremony when the painting was unveiled spoke to his clout and the power of federal spending. As he walked into the room, more than 100 people stood and applauded.

Standard stuff, right? It was, until I realized that most of the people in the room had had leukemia or other blood diseases and were alive because of the C.W. Bill Young Bone Marrow registry, his greatest legislative achievement.

Young's influence had declined in recent years. He had to step down from the chairmanship because of party term limits. The political dynamics changed. He remained a senior Republican on the committee and chaired the defense appropriations subcommittee, but pork fell out of favor because of the infamous Bridge to Nowhere and the public backlash against federal spending.

Young's gentlemanly manner made him unsuitable for the modern media world. He wasn't comfortable spewing partisan talking points on Fox News. He also balked at Republican leadership's requirement that he raise money for other Republicans. He preferred legislating to politicking.

Young initially fell in line with House Republicans in insisting that funding for Obamacare be stripped from a federal spending bill and then later said, "The politics should be over. It's time to legislate." Critics, including Tampa Bay Times columnist John Romano, said it was too little, too late.

I, too, was disappointed Young didn't assert himself in the last week because he could have played an important role in getting Congress functioning again. But maybe it's not surprising given how Congress has changed since Young first got elected in 1970. The days when House Speaker Tip O'Neill cut deals with Ronald Reagan are a faint memory.

Congress used to be dominated by leaders like Bill Young, pragmatic politicians who were held in high esteem because they could compromise. Young often told me that passing appropriations bills was the one thing that Congress must do every year and he had to approach it with a bipartisan strategy to get the necessary 218 votes.

But today, Congress can't even pass those bills.

His departure follows the death, retirement or electoral loss of many other pragmatic politicians, leaders such as Sens. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Richard Lugar of Indiana, and Rep. Clay Shaw of South Florida.

They showed leadership by working with colleagues on the other side of the aisle and forging compromises that addressed the problems of our time, traits not valued in our modern political food fight.

Bill Young was an adult in a place that is becoming increasingly childish. We will miss him.

Bill Adair, former Washington bureau chief and PolitiFact editor, worked for the Times for 24 years before leaving in June to become the Knight Professor of the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy at Duke University. He remains a contributing editor to the fact-checking site and can be reached at