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Bill Young’s Departure Hastens the End of a Legislative Era

The C.W. stands for Charles William, but since he arrived at the Capitol more than 42 years ago, he’s been known to just about everyone by the rest of the name on his official letterhead: Bill Young.

The simple and straightforward moniker nicely captures the essence of the lawmaker who has been the longest-serving Republican in Congress for the past five years. He announced Wednesday that he would retire next year, after 22 terms representing the peninsular Pinellas County on the Gulf Coast of Florida.

Young’s impending departure offers a clear reminder of how the balance of congressional power, especially on the GOP side, has shifted at least two generations to the right — on both the temporal timeline and the ideological spectrum.

The 113th Congress began with 46 members born after Young first took office in 1971. He is among just three GOP incumbents born before Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president — Young turns 83 in December — and one of just four Republicans who came to Washington before Ronald Reagan became president. He never went to a day of college, hardly unusual for successful people of his generation but a story he shares with just 1 percent of current members.

After doing well in the insurance business and the state Senate, he arrived in the House to join a Florida delegation of a dozen white men, just three of them Republicans. The delegation he’ll leave is more than twice as big, is dominated 17 to 10 by the GOP and is only two-thirds Anglo and male.

With that background, it’s hardly a surprise that Young’s style has always remained as old-fashioned as his now-silver pompadour. Even though he ascended into the highest ranks of the legislatively powerful two decades ago, just as his caucus was launching its fundamental turn toward in-your-face conservatism, Young never much wavered from the go along to get along, the spend more money to make policymaking easier track — an ethos that for decades defined the Appropriations Committee.

Young secured a seat on the spending panel in his second term, rose to claim the top Republican seat on the Defense Subcommittee in 1995 and has held it for 13 years since then, with six years in the middle as chairman of the full committee. All the while, the influence of the appropriators has been steadily fading as the discretionary budget has tightened, earmarking has become verboten, and partisan bile has corroded the regular budget process as thoroughly as anything else.

But all the while, too, Young remained as effective as anyone by leveraging his retro GOP ways, mostly in an effort to win more money for the Pentagon and to make sure a fair share of it was funneled to the defense contractors of Tampa Bay. He would always lead with amiability and bipartisan collegiality, but if that didn’t do the trick, he was never afraid to call out lawmakers or presidents on either side.

That old school approach is not likely to be replicated as successfully anytime soon, especially now that sequestration for defense programs is more or less locked in place. Now Young prepares to become the final departure from the fabled quintet that orchestrated a generation’s worth of robust congressional military spending programs, even when peace dividends or spending caps were on the minds of both parties. (The others were Democratic Sen. Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii, who died last year; Democrat Norm Dicks of Washington, who retired from the House last year; Democratic Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, who died in 2010; and Republican Ted Stevens, who lost his Alaska Senate seat in 2008.)

Assuming the GOP holds the House in the midterms, the likeliest next chairman of the Defense Appropriations subcommittee would be Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey. The more senior Frank R. Wolf of Virginia has shown no interest in driving military spending, even though it’s half of the discretionary budget, preferring to focus on domestic programs. Another panel veteran who might want the gavel, Jack Kingston of Georgia, is leaving to run for the Senate.

By the benchmark of his entire career, Young’s voting record was that of a solid pro-business conservative and a reliable vote for the Republican leadership. But some of his recent high-profile stances — for the fiscal cliff deal, against continuing troops in Afghanistan, willing to consider new gun control and a higher minimum wage, supportive of environmental regulations — left no doubt he was staying in the mainstream of the 1970s and 1980s, even as his caucus was being pushed way to the right by the “Contract With America” revolutionaries of the 1990s and the tea party crowd of today.

But, to the end, he made it just as clear he wasn’t out to pick a fight with the younger crowd.

“I’m a little disappointed. It seems there’s too much politics. It’s a different Congress,” he told the Tampa Bay Times on Wednesday from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where he’s being treated for the bad back that keeps him in a wheelchair most days. But then he volunteered that he was holding none of his colleagues to blame for the gridlock.

“I love every one of these guys,” he said. “They’re doing what they think is right. That’s what I did.”

Young won his current term by 15 points, his closest race in two decades as President Barack Obama narrowly carried the district, which includes the bulk of St. Petersburg. His challenger, attorney and former Hill aide Jessica Ehrlich, has already announced she’ll try again, but without Young on the ballot the district will be highly competitive and more prominent Democrats may seek the nomination.

The early roster of potential Republican aspirants includes several state legislators, county commissioners, former local mayors and the congressman’s namesake, Billy Young II — who would shift the generational tipping point yet again.

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