WASHINGTON -- U.S. Rep. Don Young, who wielded considerable power on the House Committee on Natural Resources in the 1990s as chairman and in recent years as its senior Republican, on Wednesday lost his top spot on the panel.
The move was forced by Republican leaders, who are determining this week who will assume leadership roles on House committees when Congress begins its new term next year.
Young told his Republican colleagues in a caucus meeting that it was a difficult decision to step aside as the top Republican on a committee with a crucial mission for Alaska that he had been a member of for the past 36 years. But he also told them he was "confident that the cloud that hangs over me will eventually clear as I know I have done nothing wrong."
"However, for the good of the Republican Party, the right thing for me to do is temporarily step down from my post as ranking member on the House Committee on Natural Resources while my name is cleared," Young said in a statement. "At that time, I look forward to regaining my post."
Young has been Alaska's sole representative to the House of Representatives since 1973 and next year will be the second-most senior Republican member. He squeaked through in the primary election this year and then went on to a decisive Nov. 4 victory over a Democratic challenger -- despite persistent rumblings of an FBI investigation into fundraising and other potential wrongdoing. Since 2007, Young has spent over $1.1 million on legal fees connected with the federal probe.
But soon after winning the election, it became clear that even with a victory, Young's days were numbered as the ranking member of the Natural Resources panel. Last month, Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, replaced Young as the small-state representative on the steering committee, a move that left the Alaska Republican without a voice while its 27 members worked out this week who gets what top committee assignments for the next Congress.
Then Tuesday, Young met with Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, the Republican House leader. Boehner told Young he wouldn't support him continuing on as the ranking Republican on the Natural Resource committee, according to a Republican aide familiar the meeting. Boehner also told Young that the steering committee that controls which Republicans get the top committee spots was unlikely to support the Alaska Republican, either, according to the Republican source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Still, Young went forward Tuesday with a presentation to the committee, a requirement for all of the members seeking a top committee post.
"I commend Don Young for putting the interests of the Republican Conference, the House, and the American people first by making this decision," Boehner said in a statement. "In the interests of Don, his family, and his constituents, it is my hope that this matter will be resolved as soon as possible."
Young doesn't lose his overall House seniority or his other committee posts, and he remains a member of the Natural Resources committee.
Although Young acknowledged that a cloud remains over him because of the criminal inquiry, he characterized his move as a temporary one, and said he hoped he would be "resuming my post in the future."
But as the next session of Congress takes shape, Republicans have worked to rid themselves of the taint of corruption remaining from GOP lawmakers with close ties to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Young's move shows that he was conscious that he "brought some baggage, at least temporarily," said Rep. C.W. "Bill" Young, the only other Republican House member with more seniority than Young.
It also allows House Republicans to regain some moral high ground. In recent weeks, they've taken Democrats to task for continuing to allow Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y. to chair the powerful Ways and Means Committee, despite allegations of ethical lapses. Having Young in a leadership role on an important committee may have undercut those arguments for Republicans, who during the election attacked Democrats who accepted campaign contributions from Rangel.
"At least they can't point to Don Young as an example of what we might criticize them for," Bill Young said. "And I think that's one of the considerations that he had."
Some of his colleagues, such as anti-earmarking crusader Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., have had ideological differences with Young, but described his remarks to fellow Republicans Wednesday afternoon as "gracious." Stepping down as the ranking member of the committee is "for the good of the party," Flake said.
"He felt that for the party to move forward, he needed to do what he did," Flake said. "I like Don; it's a tough thing for him. He said that he's been on the committee for 36 years."
It definitely is the end of an era, said Deborah Williams, an environmentalist who now heads Alaska Conservation Solutions. In the Clinton Administration, Williams worked for then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt as a top aide on Alaska issues while Young headed the Resources Committee. In that role, she often testified about Alaska-related matters at his committee meetings, and occasionally, sparred with him.
"When Don Young sought to advance the public good in that position, it was a pleasure to work with him and he was very effective," Williams said. "But again and again, when he sought to advocate for legislation or interests that were not in the public interest ... he was thwarted and spent a lot of energy and political capital on issues that did not advance."
Young took over the Resources Committee in 1995 after Republicans regained control of the House of Representatives in the 1994 elections. At that time, the Natural Resources Committee was renamed the House Resources Committee -- a signal that its focus would be less about conservation and more about resource development. At one of Babbitt's first meetings with Young at the helm, at a committee hearing on a federal wolf reintroduction program, he told Young: "Mr. Chairman, I have no doubt about who the alpha wolf is in this room."
Young held the chairmanship of the committee until internal House rules on term limits for committee chairmanships forced him to step aside for Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah. Hansen held the seat for two years before the Republican Young had mentored, Rep. Richard Pombo of California, took over as chairman.
Young then took over as chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, where he oversaw the $286.4 billion highway spending bill in 2005 that included money for what became known as Alaska's "bridges to nowhere." It also earmarked $10 million for the now-infamous Coconut Road interchange study in Florida that, this year, prompted Young's colleagues to ask for a federal investigation into how it was inserted in the bill.
By ERIKA BOLSTAD
Alaska Dispatch Publishing