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Sen. Robert Byrd -- life and legacy

L. Christopher Plein
Assistant Dean for the School of Applied Social Sciences, West Virginia University
Monday, June 28, 2010; 12:00 PM

Prof. Christopher Plein will be online at noon ET to take your questions about the life of Sen. Robert Byrd and his impact on the state of West Virginia.

Plein studies West Virginia policy and public administration and is a coauthor of "West Virginia Politics and Government." He serves as the the Assistant Dean for the School of Applied Social Sciences at West Virginia University

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Anonymous: I once visited Byrd in his Senate office and in the foothold of his desk was a pile of boxes containing 6x8 cards with names and phone numbers on them. They were the names of local officials in all the counties of West Virginia, and he called them regularly. Lyndon Johnson did the same thing, and I think Byrd picked the idea up from him. I believe this is the reason for Byrd's unbelievable support in West Virginia, even in his old age when it was clear he didn't have full control of his faculties. I contend his personal contacts were more significant than the federal funds and projects he funneled to the state because money is anonymous, but local officials remember when a senator calls them and seeks their advice.

L. Christopher Plein: Senator Byrd clearly identified with West Virginians. While he occupied a national stage, he was very constituent oriented. Indeed, having a feel for the issues and needs of the state is crucial to continued success not only in policymaking but also in the campaign cycle. I don't believe that Senator Byrd was alone in these types of practices to maintain connections. All too often, there is a tendency to believe that Senators and Representatives are remote and removed from their constituencies. In most circumstances, members are responsive and attuned. To be disconnected is to run the risk of losing support. Senator Byrd's capacity to connect to West Virginians was an important part of his legacy and success.

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Boone, NC: Senator Byrd was a product of the NW mountains of North Carolina, having been born in Wilkes County....home of moonshine and Junior Johnson

L. Christopher Plein: If you want to know more about Senator Byrd's life, you may want to take a look at his autobiography that was published just a few years ago. It's entitled, "Child of the Appalachian Coalfields." and was published by the West Virginia University Press in 2005.

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Montgomery Village, MD: I lived in WVA for a few years in the '70s and I will always remember a quote from Sen. Byrd relating to solving problems before you need to or speculating too far in advance about things that may or may not happen. He said "Don't roll your pants legs up until you get to the creek." Wise counsel.

L. Christopher Plein: This down home quote serves to remind us that Senator Byrd deeply believed in the traditional legislative model, which favors deliberation and discussion before action. As a student of the Constitution, he emphasized the key role that Congress must play in governance. In recent years, he was known for warning policymakers, especially in the Executive branch, about the dangers of rushing to judgement and action.

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Anonymous: One person's "pork" is another person's jobs. Is there an estimate as to how many Federal funds Senator Byrd guided to West Virginia? In a state there is relatively financially less off than other states, how importance were these programs to the people and economy of West Virginia?

L. Christopher Plein: There have been a couple questions about pork barrel politics. There is no doubt that Senator Byrd has been associated with this and this is part of his legacy. But the issue is more complext. As is suggested in the question below, what is and what is not pork can be a subject of interpretation. I would like to share two observations, first it is clear that Senator Byrd was instrumental in securing funds for West Virginia that were aimed at capacity building, that is building infrastructure and catalyzing employment opportunities. By this measure, Senator Byrd was accomplishing what is expected of legislators and was very successful. Second, and perhaps more importantly, when some find fault with institutional practices, such as those in Congress, the tendency is to personify the issue by identifying one individual as a case in point. Senator Byrd was often singled out in this regard. The larger issue of how Congress effectively appropriates federal funds is very important and should not be overlooked. These are matters for continued discussion on procedures and practices of the entire institution.

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Philadelphia: In Senator Byrd's career, when was he most and least popular in West Virginia? How much has public opinion about him swung among West Virginians and how did Senator Byrd react when his approval was waning?

L. Christopher Plein: I'd like to take this question in a somewhat different, but related direction. In recent months, Senator Byrd took stances that clearly calls for rethinking the environmental impacts of relying on coal as an energy resource. He also was very forceful in his criticism of mine safety practices. His must recent contribution to his legacy may have been to lend his reputation to rethinking current practices in the coal industry and the future of our energy policy.

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Rockville, MD : Has anyone been a "junior senator" longer than Jay Rockefeller?

L. Christopher Plein: While I don't know the answer to this question, it is clear that Senator Rockefeller has had a substantial influence on policy direction in the United States. His long term efforts in health reform is of particular note. It may be that the term "junior" senator is a misnomer in many applications.

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Poplar Bluff, MO: With the loss Senator Kennedy, the Senate lost two of its most distinguished "lions". Do you believe in our current political climate that anyone will gain the massive senority and power that Senators Byrd and Kennedy amassed? Thank you.

L. Christopher Plein: Senators Kennedy and Byrd certainly represented a different era and time in American politics. It is difficult to determine what the future will hold. As this year's election cycle is illustrating, there seems to be an anti-incumbent sentiment among many. In addition, there are regular calls to reform the legislative system to dampen the influence of seniority on committee assignments and the like. However, it will likely remain that legislators will continue to make important contributions to the direction and character of American politics and policy. This may be less a function of time, then of talent and ability.

I have enjoyed the opportunity to share some perspective with you all and will be signing off now.

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