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Byrd's own memorial is caught in the Senate tangle

A U.S. flag covers the casket of Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) in the Senate chamber on Thursday.
A U.S. flag covers the casket of Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) in the Senate chamber on Thursday. (Stephen Crowley/pool Photo Via Bloomberg)

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Sunday, July 4, 2010

The scene was anything but restful as Robert Byrd lay in repose.

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In order for the late senator's casket to be brought onto the Senate floor Thursday, the Senate Rules Committee set in motion a bizarre set of restrictions: Entrances to the building were sealed, elevators disabled, reporters locked out of the press gallery, TV cameras directed not to film members of the Byrd family and photographers asked to submit photos for the committee's review before publication. Proceedings were delayed, and 50 senators cooled their heels outside the Senate chamber, where a Rules Committee staffer was barking out orders: "This corridor is closed!"

Strange and incomprehensible rules tying the Senate in knots and causing widespread frustration? It was, in other words, typical of the Senate Byrd helped to create.

This is not to be disrespectful toward the legendary West Virginia Democrat, the longest-serving member of Congress in history, who died Monday at the age of 92. Byrd was a soaring figure: Overcoming humble origins and the racial politics of his youth, he became a formidable leader in his prime and a profile in determination as his health failed.

But there is something wrong with the way Byrd was lionized last week. In a typical remembrance, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) waved a copy of the Constitution and called Byrd "the keeper of the Senate flame, the fiercest defender of the Senate's constitutional role and prerogatives."

True. Yet Byrd's successful defense of these "prerogatives" is perhaps the main reason why the Senate is so ossified today and why people have lost faith in Congress.

The most obvious example was his longtime status as lord of congressional appropriations, which built his state's economy on pork but also built the Washington lobbying culture of favors for campaign contributions and the revolving door between Capitol Hill and K Street. It's no accident that veterans of the Appropriations Committee have almost all of the top jobs in Congress at this time of reckless spending and influence-peddling scandals.

Byrd was also the leader of the opposition to limits on filibusters and secret holds. His motive was noble, and he fought for it until the end. His final speech, entered into the record last week but not delivered, defended an individual senator's right to block legislation in secret. "Our Founding Fathers intended the Senate," he lectured colleagues last month in one of his last appearances, to have "unlimited debate and the protection of minority rights."

But the Founders probably didn't envision how the process would be abused. Between 1917 and 1971, according to the Congressional Research Service, there was an average of one "cloture motion" -- a maneuver to overcome a filibuster -- filed per year. That's now up to 70 per year.

This, along with the secret holds, explains why some 400 bills in this Congress that have passed the House -- more than 80 percent unanimously or with a majority of Republicans -- have not been taken up by the Senate. Twenty-two judicial appointees, 13 of whom received unanimous support in committee, languish awaiting a vote. The Senate isn't broken because it gets snarled on contentious issues. It's broken because it gets snarled when there's no dispute.

So even something as simple as Byrd's vigil got tangled in the Senate's whimsical rules and prerogatives. When the hearse arrived Thursday morning, the East Front of the Capitol and much of the building were in lockdown, and staffers were halted by police with automatic weapons and bomb-sniffing dogs -- a level of security outdoing the Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford memorials.

Senators explained that the rules were to respect the family's privacy -- though if privacy were the goal, having the ceremony on the Senate floor was a strange choice. The cameras that give C-SPAN its footage of the Senate floor were shut down, over formal complaints from the networks, because, according to the rules, the Senate wasn't technically in session, even though the official Senate chaplain was on the floor offering a prayer.

Byrd may have relished procedural high jinks, but in death he deserved a calmer repose. It's no small irony that his final trip to the Senate floor was marred by the misapplication of the senatorial "prerogatives" he treasured, as his colleagues turned a place where the people's business should be conducted into a private club. Now that the flame keeper of Senate prerogative has passed the torch, it's time for senators to restore their chamber to being "the world's greatest deliberative body," as Byrd liked to call it -- and not merely the world's most dilatory.

danamilbank@washpost.com


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