‘Tell It Like It Is’ Rep. Don Young Making Congressional History

  • Alaska’s only congressman about to set a Republican longevity record
  • ‘Waffle-stomping, Harvard-graduating, intellectual bunch of idiots’

Remember the “bridge to nowhere” earmarks? That was Rep. Don Young.

The guy who stuck his hand in a steel-jaw leghold trap during a Capitol Hill hearing to prove the pain was tolerable? And the lawmaker who showed up in committee with an oosik (walrus penis bone)? Also Don Young.

At 85, the energetic and sometimes dramatic Young has been Alaska’s at-large congressman since March 1973—the same month that the last U.S. soldier left Vietnam.

He’s on track to become Congress’s longest-serving Republican ever, eclipsing legendary former Speaker Joe Cannon (the guy a House office building is named after).

Cannon retired in 1923 after serving for 16,800 days over three non-consecutive tenures. On March 5, Young would surpass that. Reaching the milestone “doesn’t get you any more pay,” Young said in a February interview amid the animal trophy heads, old firearms and other keepsakes in his Capitol Hill office. “But I accept it and I thank my Alaska voters who keep me in the job.”

Watch the full interview below:

‘Not Politically Correct’

In office, Young has been a champion of his state’s energy industry, rural areas and natives, known for his attention to detail and his unfiltered comments.

In 1994, shortly before taking the gavel of the House Natural Resources Committee, Young described environmentalists in a BNA interview as “the self-centered bunch, the waffle-stomping, Harvard-graduating, intellectual bunch of idiots that don’t understand that they’re leading this country into environmental disaster.”

He apologized to Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) for describing her on the House floor as a “young lady” who “doesn’t know a damn thing what she’s talking about” in response to Jayapal’s criticism of one of Young’s Alaska wildlife management amendments.

At the urging of his party’s leaders, Young also apologized for his spontaneous description of how technology had changed the agriculture industry. “My father had a ranch; we used to have 50-60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes,” he had said in a 2013 radio interview. “It takes two people to pick the same tomatoes now. It’s all done by machine.”

An Alaska newspaper writer once described him as “the Sergeant Preston of the politically incorrect.”

“I usually, very frankly, speak it like it is, tell it like it is,” Young said in the Bloomberg Government interview in February. “I get in trouble for doing that, because it’s not politically correct. And then the television cameras and media starts picking it up, that I said something politically incorrect.”

“But it came from here,” he said, pointing to his heart, “and that’s the difference.”

‘We Love Him’

He repeatedly guided to House passage bills to open Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling, only to see the Senate block the idea until Republicans in both chambers added an ANWR provision to their 2017 tax-cut overhaul.

Young was able to reach bipartisan consensus on several issues, such as the 2000 passage of the Conservation and Reinvestment Act to dedicate royalties from offshore oil and gas wells to buying state lands.

Earlier, Young was responsible for the 1976 Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the main law governing marine fisheries management in federal waters — though the law ended up being named for its bipartisan Senate sponsors, Warren Magnuson (D-Wash.) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).

Young deserves more credit for that law and more, said Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska). He pointed to Young’s continued work on the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which established Alaska Native claims to land by transferring titles to regional corporations and local village corporations, and his negotiating the final terms of a measure authorizing construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System.

“The record shows he’s clearly one of the most effective legislators in D.C.,” Sullivan said. “He’s phenomenal. We love him.”

Young has been willing to take on causes that other Republicans generally avoid, such as ensuring the Davis-Bacon Act is in place for paying prevailing wages on public works projects, said Joey Merrick, the head of Laborers’ Local 341, which represents construction, health care and other workers in south-central Alaska.

“He speaks his mind and stands up for Alaska when it’s not popular or when it’s popular,” Merrick said.

(By Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Personal Relationships

Like other longtime lawmakers, Young laments the demise of close personal relationships in Congress. He was friends and hunting buddies with the late John Dingell (D-Mich.), the longest-serving member of either party.

Such communication, he said, was possible in part because longer congressional work weeks kept lawmakers in Washington, so it made sense to socialize with each other on weekends. Committee members also spent a lot of time together because that’s where the real work got done.

“Right now, the chairmen don’t have any authority, and that’s not good,” he said. “It impedes our ability to govern.”

Ethics and Politics

One of Young’s former aides pleaded guilty in 2007 to accepting money from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff in return for information. That and other revelations led to a House ethics investigation.

No charges were filed against Young.

Three years later, the ethics panel ordered Young to repay nearly $60,000 for trips to hunting lodges that involved improper gifts or the use of campaign funds, but stopped short of issuing a full reprimand.

Alaska voters don’t seem to have held much of it against him. Since 2008, when he won a GOP primary by just 304 votes, he has been returned to office by margins of at least five percentage points. He already announced his intention to run for re-election in 2020.

Romance, Chairman-Style

Young headed the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee from 2001 to 2007, a period that included earmarks for two bridges— one from Anchorage to largely uninhabited land and another from Ketchikan to the tiny island of Gravina — that drew widespread condemnation.

Young said the criticism of those earmarks was unjustified and disagreed with his party when it abolished all earmarks — “the grease that makes that wheel turn.”

In one of his final actions before term limits required him to give up that gavel, Young changed the official title of his highway bill so that instead of being known as the SAFETEA Act, the shorthand would be SAFETEA-LU.

His wife Lu died four years later.

In June 2015, on his 82nd birthday, Young remarried. “I think she’s sillier than hell to marry me,” Alaska Public Media quoted him as saying.

What’s Next

Sullivan said he’s impressed by his colleague’s continued energy. “He hasn’t lost a step mentally and physically,” Sullivan said.

Young’s own assessment?

“As long as I feel good physically—mentally, you know, I’m a little screwed up, but that makes me a good congressman; I’ve not changed that part—but physically, if I can’t do it, I’m not going to be a Claude Pepper,” he said, referring to the Florida Democrat who died in office in 1989 after battling health problems. “That ain’t gonna happen.”

About The Milestone

Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) served longer in the Senate than Young has in the House. However, Thurmond was a Democrat for about the first decade of his Senate service — and his Republican tenure (1964 to 2003) is shorter than Young’s Republican U.S. House tenure (from March 1973, when he won a special election, to the present).

With assistance from Tiffany Stecker and Greg Giroux

To contact the reporter on this story: Chuck McCutcheon in Washington at cmccutcheon@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Katherine Rizzo at krizzo@bgov.com; Heather Rothman at hrothman@bgov.com