Sen. Robert Byrd was a man whose moment in history had long passed, one whose role had diminished from being, arguably, a national asset to being a siphon of national assets.
Byrd’s record was far smaller than his history-making 58 years in Congress and his nine terms in the Senate would suggest. Outside his home state of West Virginia and apart from the self-aggrandizing tributes of fellow senators, who best appreciate Byrd’s efforts to preserve the powers of their chamber, Byrd was far better recognized for his Capitol Hill politicking and his procurement of pork than for his contributions to sound public policy. (In fairness, he was an early and principled opponent of the Iraq invasion in 2003, and he correctly predicted that it would tie up American resources for years.)
The one piece of legislation closely associated with him was, like many of Byrd’s lesser accomplishments, a blatant grab of federal cash. The Byrd Amendment, which was in force from 2000 until its repeal in 2007, allocated duties collected from foreign producers who allegedly sold products in the United States below cost to the private American companies that filed complaints against them. Such tariffs usually belong to the U.S. Treasury.
Thus, when our government succumbed to protectionist pleas, you and I paid twice: First in the form of higher prices for the protected products, and second when the money collected in our name was handed over to private businesses.
Byrd succeeded Mike Mansfield of Montana as Senate Majority Leader in 1977. Mansfield was a statesman respected on both sides of the aisle. He had advised President Kennedy late in 1962 that the government of South Vietnam could not hold the support of its people, and he opposed the Vietnam War. Mansfield had worked with President Nixon to arrange the eventual withdrawal of American troops from Southeast Asia. When the economy faltered in 1971, Mansfield declared: “What we're in is not a Republican recession or a Democratic recession; both parties had much to do with bringing us where we are today. But we're facing a national situation which calls for the best which all of us can produce, because we know the results will be something which we will regret.”
Byrd was, to put it charitably, not a statesman. A onetime member of the Ku Klux Klan and opponent of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (who later recanted and apologized for his racial views), Byrd kept a generally low profile on affairs of state. He was a master of Senate procedure, a true believer in the mantra of former House Speaker Sam Rayburn: “to get along, go along.” His supporters saw their legislative careers flourish; any who challenged him saw theirs suffer.
Under his leadership, though not primarily because of it, Democrats lost their Senate majority in the 1980 elections. Byrd led the minority through most of the 1980s, during which time Ronald Reagan got much of his legislative agenda through Congress with much less difficulty than the current president has experienced. Credit or blame for that, depending upon your point of view, goes to Byrd.
The money really started to flow back to West Virginia when Byrd became chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee in 1989 (by which time Democrats were again in the majority). The Charleston (W.V.) Gazette listed some of Byrd’s initiatives yesterday: a new FBI fingerprint identification center; a radio telescope; new federal courthouses in Charleston and Beckley; and the Robert C. Byrd Freeway, not to be confused with the Robert C. Byrd Highway, which is confusing anyway because both are part of the Robert C. Byrd Appalachian Highway System. Byrd was also responsible for a vast assortment of smaller projects in every corner of his impoverished state.
Byrd paid no heed to critics from outside the state who bemoaned the parade of pork. He called them “a bunch of peckerwoods” in an interview with National Public Radio.
West Virginians loved it all, though it seems to have done little to actually change the state’s underlying poverty. The tributes began early yesterday as news of his death spread. This reader comment, on the Gazette’s website, was typical: “To those who would try to diminish his legacy: West Virginia accepted and loved Sen. Byrd, regardless where he came from. People change, thank God, and the sins of youth are regrettable, but people can make amends. I, along with the majority of good Americans, made comments, held positions, and feel regret. Sen. Byrd made mistakes, but put yourself in his shoes and anyone who says they would have lived a perfect life under RCB's life conditions is not living a perfect life now. Rest in peace old friend...”
Byrd’s fans like to point out how he, a man of humble origins, could hold forth on the Peloponnesian Wars as comfortably as he did on the Senate’s rules of procedure. I think there is a line between erudition and pomposity, and in the interviews I heard, I felt Byrd veered across the line regularly. But that’s just a matter of style. More to the point, Byrd epitomized a Washington culture that centered on the accumulation of power for its own sake. In a year in which voters seem prepared to revolt against the political establishment, Byrd was one of the establishment’s most vivid symbols.
The arrogance of Byrd’s power was on display even in the man’s final hours. Though he was hospitalized late last week, his family and staff made no announcement until Sunday afternoon, when his death was imminent. Even then, they did not say why he was in the hospital, or what hospital he was in.
Had Byrd survived just one week longer, West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III, a Democrat, would have been able to appoint a successor to fill the remainder of Byrd’s term, which expires in January 2013. But Byrd’s death creates some uncertainty about what happens next.
State law provides that if a vacancy is “declared” with more than 30 months remaining in a senator’s term, a successor is appointed only until the next election, which will be this November. Considering the Democrats’ poor national prospects this year, party leaders doubtless are eager to keep that seat locked up for the remainder of Byrd’s term. We will have to see whether West Virginia Democrats try to delay the vacancy declaration to prevent voters from choosing their own replacement this fall.
In the meantime, Byrd’s death takes away a key Democratic vote this week, when party leaders wanted to push financial services reform legislation through Congress. It also complicates President Obama’s goal to pass climate and energy legislation this year. West Virginians are highly sensitive to anything that might harm their coal industry. A partisan climate bill pushed through Congress by Democrats could be enough to hand Byrd’s seat to the Republicans in an election this November.
With all due sympathy to his family, his colleagues and the state that revered him, Byrd’s passing from the public stage is an event to mark but not one to mourn. His legislative style and governing philosophy no longer serve this country well, if they ever did.