On-the-move Young fondly viewed as a throwback

Published December 7, 2004

WASHINGTON - Keith Ashdown is a crusader against big spenders. As vice president for policy at the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, he sifts through congressional spending bills (the latest one weighed 14 pounds) and finds the political pork.

Ashdown is blunt about his findings, issuing press releases that lambast members of Congress for stuffing the bills with pet projects.

You might think he would have harsh words about Rep. C.W. Bill Young, the Largo Republican ending a six-year term as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. After all, Young has been running the pork farm and has shoveled tens of millions of dollars to his South Pinellas district.

But here's how Ashdown described Young:

"I'd probably put him at the top of the list of people in Congress I most admire. If you could clone him 434 times, the Congress would be a better place."

In an era of supercharged partisanship, Young is a throwback to a gentler time. He doesn't go on cable TV and blast the Democrats. He rarely even campaigns for fellow Republicans. He is a polite negotiator who can bring opposing sides together and cut a deal.

Ashdown called Young "a Southern gentleman" who is fair, treats Democrats with respect and - though he controls the federal checkbook - hasn't gotten piggy for his district.

"He is heads and tails above everybody," said Ashdown. "He has always been a brilliant legislator."

In his six years as chairman, Young, 73, earned high marks from all sides. Budget analysts praised his ability to overcome political roadblocks. The watchdogs said he wasn't greedy. Even the Democrats liked him.

Rep. David Obey, the top Democrat on the committee, often argued issues with Young, but they had a friendly relationship.

"We've differed many, many times, but we're the old school that feels you ought to fight your differences during the day - no low blows - and then go out at night and be friends," Obey said.

Young, who is stepping down because of a Republican term limit, said he and Obey "disagree on almost everything. But we respect each other."

Elsewhere in the House, Democrats have been cut out. The Republicans decide what they want and ram it through - much like the Democrats did when they ran the place.

But Young has given Democrats a voice and allowed them to help divvy up the federal pie.

That's partly because of his committee's tradition of bipartisan cooperation. The 13 appropriations bills must pass every year to keep the government running. Republicans have a small majority in the House and often need Democratic votes to make sure the bills pass.

But the cooperation also reflects Young's gentle demeanor and his long experience in the minority party.

When he was elected to the Florida Senate in 1960, he was the chamber's only Republican. For 10 years in the state Senate and 24 in the U.S. House, he was a member of the minority. He knows what it's like to be cut out by the opposition.

When Republicans took control of the U.S. House in 1994, Young vowed to treat Democrats fairly.

"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. "I've tried to deal with anybody on that basis, whether it is a first-term freshman or a 20-year veteran."

In his first few years as chairman, Young clashed with Republican leaders because they wanted him to be more partisan. He balked when they asked him to use the spending bills to undermine Democrats, and he was reluctant to use his Capitol Hill clout to raise money for GOP candidates.

Party leaders forced him to create a political action committee to collect money, but he made a halfhearted effort. His PAC collected $30,000 this year, paltry in the million-dollar world of political cash.

He dislikes modern mudslinging and says he never ran negative campaign ads against opponents.

"My attitude on politics is: Tell your potential voters what you plan to do and what you have been doing and you let your opponent speak for himself," he said. "Politics has gotten real personal. I'm not real pleased with that."

For six years, he had one of the most prestigious jobs in Congress. He had an ornate corner office at the Capitol. Heads of state and movie stars stopped to see him (and ask for money). But truth be told, he is perfectly happy to leave.

He likens himself to a corporate executive who got promoted and lost touch with his company. Too many meetings.

"It's not that I didn't enjoy that, it was just time-consuming and not very productive," he said.

For the Tampa Bay area, he has been a one-man economic development authority. He bought sand for the beaches, new bridges for Treasure Island and Belleair Beach, new buildings at MacDill Air Force Base and a new reservoir in Hillsborough County. When Pinellas officials wanted $10-million for U.S. 19 several years ago, Young replied: "How about $50-million?"

Yet watchdogs such as Ashdown say Young has not been excessive at bringing home the bacon, at least by the standards of legendary spenders such as Sens. Ted Stevens and Robert Byrd.

Young vows that he will still get lots of money for the bay area in his new role as the committee's vice chairman and head of the subcommittee on defense. He'll also get to focus on the military, which has long been his favorite topic.

He has no plans to retire.

"I'm still energetic, I still have all my faculties about me," he said. "I still have a role to play."

- Washington bureau chief Bill Adair can be reached at 202463-0575 or adair@sptimes.com