Saturday, June 12, 2021

This Day in Senate History (Robert Byrd Becomes Longest-Serving Member)


June 12, 2006—Having already occupied the most powerful leadership posts in the upper chamber of Congress, Robert Byrd surpassed Strom Thurmond as the longest-serving member in the history of the U.S. Senate. 

By the time he died four years later, at age 92, the Democrat from West Virginia had also become the longest-serving member in the history of Congress as a whole; had cast more votes than any other member; and had won an unprecedented ninth term for his office.

If Byrd had completed only his second, or even third, term as Senator, he might have been remembered far more negatively. In an entry for October 2, 1971 that was posthumously included in The Haldeman Diaries, H.R. Haldeman, chief of staff for Richard Nixon, recorded that his boss, annoyed that a potential Supreme Court nominee, Richard Harding Poff, was withdrawing from consideration for a Supreme Court vacancy, had decided to “really stick it to the opposition now”:

“On the court, he came up with the idea of (Robert) Byrd of West Virginia because he was a former KKK’er, he’s elected by the Democrats as Whip, he’s a self-made lawyer, he’s more reactionary than Wallace, and he’s about 53.”

Byrd indeed was “a former KKK’er,” a recruiter and organizer in the 1940s (though never a Grand Wizard, as some recent GOP misinformation states), as well as an advocate for racial segregation and a supporter of the Vietnam War. 

But the need to secure votes among non-Southern colleagues for Senate leadership offices led him over the years to moderate old positions. Eventually, Byrd backed renewal of voting-rights legislation—a stance that won him praise from civil rights icon John Lewis and Barack Obama, the first African-American President—and he opposed both Ronald Reagan's aid to the contras in Nicaragua and George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.

As alluded to by Nixon, Byrd defeated the incumbent Democrat whip, Ted Kennedy, in 1971, shocking many political observers of the time. Thereafter he was elected twice as Senate Majority Leader. 

“I ran the Senate like a stern parent," Byrd recalled in his memoir, Child of the Appalachian Coalfields. He had little time for small talk or glad-handling, as, for instance, the convivial Kennedy had. But his mastery of Senate rules gave him an unrivalled ability to rack up votes.

Unsurprisingly, then, despite his reputation for oratory (with speeches often studded with references to Roman history or literature), Byrd made a more lasting mark as a legislative technician.

Sanford Ungar’s 1975 Atlantic Monthly profile demonstrated how Byrd structured (or restructured) the Senate business on his way up the hierarchy (including shortening the chamber’s “morning hour” and moderating who could speak on the floor). 

Were he alive today, Byrd might not recognize the political climate in either his native state or the Senate he had served so assiduously. Joe Manchin has been the only Democrat to hold a statewide office in the last four years, forcing him to tack to the right—a far cry from the days when Byrd regularly romped to landslide victories in the general election, or even ran unopposed. (Donald Trump took the state with nearly 69% of the popular vote in both the 2016 and 2020 Presidential races.)

Particularly during his two decades as chair or ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Byrd earned the nickname “The King of Pork” for the enormous federal largesse he secured for West Virginia--$1.2 billion through the Senate from 1991 to 2006, largely due to his efforts, according to an analysis by the nonprofit group Citizens Against Government Waste.

Though the use of earmarks is now being revived in Congress, the odor of illegality and ethical misdeeds continues to cling to the practice a decade after its use was banned. That complicates Senators’ hopes of proving their value to constituents—and the bargaining leverage for complex, often controversial bills that prior Senate leaders like Byrd would have possessed.

Finally, one suspects that Byrd—an institutionalist who defended the use of the filibuster in the Senate—might have lifted his eyebrows, annoyed at how Ted Cruz and his GOP colleagues have weaponized the practice. Rather than totally ban the filibuster, however, Byrd would probably have tried to punish Cruz for his showboating—perhaps by using an arcane parliamentary rule to stall a pet project—while warning Democratic colleagues against outlawing a procedure that they might find handy to use someday, albeit less frequently.

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