After the news of Senator Robert Byrd’s death broke this morning, I exchanged a couple of text messages with my brother. In one of them, he wrote that Byrd’s “style of governance has been out for something like 20 years.” Well, that’s certainly true, but leaves open a couple of questions: what is that style of governance, and are we better off with or without it?
There will be dueling narratives over the coming days about Byrd’s legacy. To some, he was a giant of the Senate, a keeper of institutional history, the savior of a poor state with every other building in said state named in his honor. To others, he was an overrated relic, a former Klansman, the example of everything that is wrong with clubby, insider politics. It would be something of a cop-out to say that there’s truth in both (which, obviously there is) so I choose to associate myself with the first group.
Here’s where I get into all kinds of internal contradictions: I may consider myself a populist above all other political labels, but I have two soft spots that are tough to square with that label. One, (I’ve written about before) is an odd respect for old machine politics, which I’ve always appreciated for placing tangible results ahead of abstract ideals (and because I tend to think that trading favors is one of the relatively minor forms of political corruption). The second, and maybe this is related to the first in “working the machinery” terms, is a deep respect for the institution of the Senate.
It’s a thin line between a genuine preference for something that has passed and a sense of nostalgia that exists only because something has passed. Last year, after the death of Ted Kennedy, a number of journalists referenced the lost age of Senate giants. I wanted to do some digging for myself – to find out which side of that nostalgia line this argument fell – so I picked a Congress I thought to be emblematic of the age of the Old (but not too old) Senate, the 86th Congress – 1959 – 1961. I consulted the prestigious Wikipedia, and read a few thumbnail sketches on the members, and based on that extensive day-long research project, did find some merit in the claim that the Senate then was more impressive than the current chamber in terms of legislative skill or even the desire for legislative skill. Success as a legislator is sort of a thankless achievement in the current anti-insider mood of the country.
As of today, the 86th Senate class is all gone.
Back to those two questions: 1) what made Byrd’s “style of governance” different from the style practiced today; and 2) is that style better than what we have today?
On the first, I defer to the title of the post – pork and deliberation. Or at least, the political acceptability of pork rather the actual existence of pork. Unlike many of today’s members, Byrd never felt a need to rationalize securing federal dollars for his state. He remembered he was sent to the Senate for two reasons: to serve the United States and to serve West Virginia. Serving both country and state can be at odds, often requiring sacrificing the interests of the state for the “greater good” of the nation. Byrd served both, without apology.
As for deliberation, I can only think of Byrd’s heartbreaking speech opposing the war in Iraq in which he described the Senate as “hauntingly silent” and “sleepwalking through history.” The world’s greatest deliberative body was too busy with the political maneuvering, either “rolling out a new product,” or the reaction to it to openly debate the most important issue of the decade.
Earlier this year, when Byrd became the longest-serving member of Congress in United States history, he spoke for one of the final times on the Senate floor to mark the occasion. The only Republican present in the chamber to hear him speak was Orrin Hatch, (disputably) the longest serving Republican Senator. If Byrd had been a Republican, I have no doubt that only a token Democrat would have turned out to hear the speech. This is an institution that has to some extent lost its sense of history and more importantly lost its sense of mission. It now serves almost entirely as a theater for the days’ political – as opposed to policy – battles. It’s clichéd to say it, and it smacks of “good ol’ days” blather, but it’s hard to look at it objectively and not find it to be true.
So yes, I do think we would be better off with that out-of-fashion style of governance. It’s true that Congress is more transparent now, less clubby, and in many ways, politics has never been cleaner. But the cost has been greater than the benefits and the people who government is intended to serve suffer for it.
In the opening pages of Robert Caro’s “Master of the Senate,” Caro quotes Daniel Webster’s 1839 speech on the concept of Union. The most interesting aspect of the re-telling was the ability of the speech to move its listeners, even opponents of its content. John C. Calhoun even grew emotional. Robert Byrd, more than any of the other 99 members, would’ve been thrilled to have served in that Senate. He was probably born a century too late and probably lived (or at least served) 20 years too long. He came to the Senate as a throwback and lived to be an absolute political dinosaur. I just hope some of the younger members were paying attention.