Congress

Don Young makes history as the longest-serving House Republican

Man from Alaska moves past Uncle Joe Cannon in the record books

Alaska’s Don Young is officially the longest-serving Republican House member in history. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Alaska’s Don Young is officially the longest-serving Republican House member in history.

On Tuesday, Young eclipsed the tenure of legendary former Speaker Joe Cannon (yes, of Cannon House Office Building fame), who served 16,800 days in the House and retired in 1923.

These days, Young is surrounded by colleagues who are much, much younger. There are at least 75 House members who were not yet born when Young first came to Washington. At least 25 members of this year’s freshman class are 40 years old or under, so half the age of the 85-year-old Alaska Republican.

Young was sworn into the House on March 14, 1973, after winning a special election on March 6. His swearing in was incidentally the same day that future senator John McCain was released after five years in a North Vietnamese prisoner of war camp. (The House considers the day a special election winner is elected as the beginning of his or her service, not the day the member-elect is sworn in.)

In the years since Young was first elected, Alaska’s population has more than doubled. He’s served alongside six Alaska senators (two Murkowskis, Frank and Lisa) and 11 governors of Alaska (just one Murkowski, Frank).

In the 46 years since joining the House, he’s kept things interesting. Anyone familiar with Capitol Hill lore connects the Alaska Republican with tales of bad behavior. He pulled a knife on former Speaker John A. Boehner in the House chamber. He later had the Ohio Republican as his best man at his 2015 wedding at the Capitol. Young stormed through Capitol Police and plastic sheeting to enter an asbestos spill area in the Capitol.

Young also allegedly violated House rules for 12 years. In 2014 the House Ethics Committee unanimously issued a letter of reproval after a years-long investigation by the panel and the Department of Justice into allegations that Young, over the course of 12 years, improperly accepted free trips, lodging, meals and even a pair of $434 Le Chameau hunting boots, all to the tune of $59,063.74 in total.

But Alaska voters have returned him to Congress, despite the idiosyncrasies, because he has been, for decades, an effective lawmaker.

Hanging on the walls of his Rayburn Building office, along with the stuffed heads of more than dozen animals he has hunted, are pictures of eight presidents signing bills he’s helped to write into law — almost all of them with particular aims of benefiting his adopted home state.

Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, talks about the decor in his Rayburn office.
Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, talks about the decor in his Rayburn office.

He has been as effective as anyone at wrangling federal dollars for parochial pet projects until such earmarks were banned in 2011 — with many identifying one of Young’s biggest wins as the tipping point in galvanizing public disdain for the practice. His earmarks of more than $200 million green-lit a road to connect Ketchikan, Alaska, with Gravina Island and its roughly 50 residents — on an overpass dubbed the “Bridge to Nowhere.”

Young was born and went to college in northern California. He was introduced to Alaska through his favorite book, Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild,” and arrived just after statehood in 1959. 

He held a variety of jobs and settled in Fort Yukon, a small town seven miles north of the Arctic Circle. He spent summers captaining his own tug and barge operation, ferrying supplies to nearby villages, and winters teaching fifth grade at a Bureau of Indian Affairs school. 

He’s now served Alaska in the House for more than 76 percent of the time it’s been a state.

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.