Editorial: Sen. Robert Byrd a link to best and worst of Senate traditions

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

The death Monday of West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd not only brought an end to the career of the longest-serving senator in American history - and a consequential one - it severed one of the last links to a political culture both maddening and refreshing.

Like many in his generation of political service, the 92-year-old Democrat - for 20 years his party's main man in the Senate, twice as majority leader - was a study in contradictions. The onetime member of the Ku Klux Klan spent half a century apologizing and atoning for that distinction, ultimately hiring one of the first black aides on Capitol Hill. He sported three-piece suits and peppered his speeches with allusions to Cicero and the Roman Senate, but campaigned with a fiddle in hand in Appalachia. One of the preeminent experts in Senate rules, Byrd used arcane bits of parliamentary procedure to get his way, yet would also share those tricks with opponents even when it worked against him.

But most folks thought first of his reputation as the "king of pork," bringing home billions in federal spending for frivolous and worthwhile projects alike. Given the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee in 1989, he announced his intent to become West Virginia's "billion-dollar industry," vowing to steer at least $1 billion courtesy of Uncle Sam to his economically downtrodden state by the end of his term. He hit the goal within two years - and kept piling on more.

Even as earmarks fell out of favor during the last decade he was still bringing home the bacon, with everything from highways to government buildings named after him. At their most extreme, his efforts to steer cash produced some real head-scratchers, including an office complex for the U.S. Navy in landlocked West Virginia. He was among the last to be utterly frank - chest puffingly proud even - about treating the federal budget as a piggy bank for his constituents. Americans on the whole shouldn't miss that part of his record.

As doggedly as he defended federal spending for the Mountain State, Byrd also stood up for both Senate tradition - he literally wrote the book on Senate history - and Congress' constitutional role as a check and balance on the other branches. He often was the most vocal opponent of efforts by Democratic and Republican presidents alike to co-opt powers belonging to the legislative, in particular opposing an Iraq war resolution he felt gave George W. Bush a blank check for the conflict. He also fought a line-item veto he said stole the power of the purse from Congress, and much more. Likewise, he used his powers of "advice and consent" on presidential nominees in a manner that suggested qualifications mattered more than party.

In an era in which many politicians are all too willing to toss away tradition in favor of political convenience, Byrd was ever ready to serve as the Senate's institutional memory. "His knowledge more closely reflects that of a senator from the 19th century than one from the 20th or 21st," Don Ritchie, an associate Senate historian, once said of Byrd. "He keeps reminding them that there are reasons why we do things the way we do."

Ah, so they're not just making things up as they go along, after all. Government needs those kinds of resources, which may prove more evident now that Byrd is gone.

Journal Star of Peoria, Ill.