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Sen. Robert Byrd's vanished ethic

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Thursday, July 1, 2010

The paradox of Robert C. Byrd's life -- and the reason his death was recognized by his Senate colleagues as so significant a milestone -- is the balance he struck between the parochial and the profound.

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On one hand, he was known as the "king of pork" and was immensely proud of the way he used his long years on the Appropriations Committee to funnel billions in federal funds into his home state of West Virginia. It never occurred to him to apologize for looking out for the home folks.

At the same time, this senator, a throwback to Lincoln in being largely self-educated, developed the fullest historical and philosophical appreciation of the separation-of-powers doctrine in the Constitution of anyone who served in government in the past century.

In the series of speeches that turned into his multivolume history of the Senate, Byrd drew on not only the wisdom of the Founding Fathers and the Federalist Papers but also the chronicles of ancient Rome.

Everything he read -- and he read almost everything -- convinced him that in any republic, the role of the Senate is an essential counterbalance to the more populist instincts of the House and the inherent imperiousness of presidents.

But in an address he delivered in the Old Senate Chamber in September 1998 at the invitation of then-Majority Leader Trent Lott, Byrd warned that "partisan warfare" was eroding the Senate's ability to fill its historic role.

As he said in that ceremonial talk, the force that empowered the Senate to withstand the profound pressures dividing the two parties is that "on the great issues, the Senate has always been blessed with senators who were able to rise above party, and consider first and foremost the national interest." Today they are missing.

In that speech 12 years ago, Byrd cited as an example the role of Sen. Howard Baker, a Republican who joined President Jimmy Carter in securing ratification of the Panama Canal Treaty.

What Byrd and other senators of his generation understood is that on a wide variety of routine issues, partisan calculations are always at play, but there is a category of questions that truly is different. And on those issues, senators are bound to consider the broad national interest.

That obligation falls especially on the Senate, as Byrd always pointed out, because it -- unlike the other part of Congress -- is not designed as a representative body, close to the people. The senators are few in number -- only two per state, no matter its size. Their tenure is longer than that of the president and three times as long as a House member. Their constituencies are broad and diverse. Everything contrives to give them a degree of independence, to exercise their best judgment on the national issues.

Today, unfortunately, on the big issues that ought to be beyond partisanship, action in the national interest has almost vanished because the party leaders, unlike Byrd and Baker when they led their parties in the Senate, do not display that consciousness or evoke it in others.

Byrd concluded his remarks by reminding his colleagues that "in the real world, exemplary personal conduct can sometimes achieve much more than any political agenda. Comity, courtesy, charitable treatment of even our political opposites, combined with a concerted effort to not just occupy our offices, but to bring honor to them, will do more to inspire our people and restore their faith in us, their leaders, than millions of dollars of 30-second spots or glitzy puff pieces concocted by spinmeisters."

The sense of loss expressed by Byrd's colleagues of both parties is real. The "king of pork" really did evoke what made the Senate great. There is a hunger there now for what is missing.

davidbroder@washpost.com



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