Young, striking Trump-like note, reflects on 2016

U.S. Rep. Don Young will start his 23rd term in January. (Photo by Wesley Early, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

Alaska Congressman Don Young showed no enthusiasm for Donald Trump during the presidential campaign. But with President-elect Trump three weeks from his swearing-in, and a new Democratic minority leader in the Senate, Young is looking at the big picture and seeing the bright side.

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Speaking in his Washington office before Congress took its Christmas break, Young struck a Trumpian note: The congressman said the country doesn’t produce anymore.

“We’ve just become a nation of really nothing,” Young said. “It’s the old Roman collapse. Same thing happened to the Roman Empire. Everybody sat around and ate grapes and read and went to plays and played games and all kinds of silly things.”

Young said Americans were aware of it, and that their leaders weren’t addressing, which he said is the message of the 2016 election. Asked if he was satisfied Trump would set a new course for the country, Young turned to specifics.

“I think he’s done well with his appointees right now. Of course, the liberal media is screaming bloody murder,” Young said, echoing Trump in his media critique.

Trump’s pick for Interior secretary, Rep. Ryan Zinke, differs with Young over federal land policy. Young wants to give more away. But he praised the Montana congressman’s dedication to streamlining development on public lands. Anyway, Young said, the more important decision is who will run the agencies within Interior.

“He has to appoint the appropriate undersecretaries. BLM, Fish and Wildlife, Parks Service. People that will follow the lead of the president and the Congress,” Young said.

Looking back at 2016, Young said he’s pleased with the Defense bills Congress passed.

“We re-established again, I think, the importance of Alaska, troop retention (and got) pay raises for the military,” Young said.

Monthly basic pay for service members will increase 2.1 percent and Congress did not change the military housing allowance.

Young counts several land conveyances, to state and local governments, among his accomplishments. And he said the water development bill Congress passed will further harbor projects in Alaska.

“Biggest accomplishment, of course, is getting little problems solved for little people,” Young said. “They’re big problems to them. They’re little problems in the scale of things.”

It’s not as visible as lawmaking, but Congress members devote a lot of staff time to untangling the individual problems their constituents have, with Social Security, the VA, or other corners of the federal bureaucracy.

“There’s nothing better, makes me happier when I pick up the phone and say ‘why is this happening?'” Young said, speaking of his calls to agency personnel. “Because then they say ‘uh-oh. I better check it.’ And they find out a lot of times they don’t have any grounds. They’re just doing it. And that makes the constituent happy. And that’s what I try to do.”

Which helps explain another of Young’s accomplishments for 2016: Getting re-elected to a 23rd term. Now he’ll be the second most senior House member, behind Democrat John Conyers of Michigan. (Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, who had been No. 2, is retiring.)

Young’s biggest frustration in 2016? He didn’t name President Obama, although he’s had plenty of gripes about Obama’s leadership and environmental policies. Young said his biggest frustration was with the U.S. Senate.

“Anything we sent over there they stopped. That’s not a good thing,” Young said. “I mean, we’re the spokesman of the people. The House of Representatives is the spokesman of the people, and they should at least be listening to it.”

Young said he hopes the new Senate Minority leader, Charles Schumer of New York, and Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell break can the logjam. Otherwise, Young predicts more political upheaval in the 2018 elections.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at Read more about Liz here.

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