Byrd Fought for Senate Until His Final Days

Posted June 29, 2010 at 3:31pm

I had the good fortune and great privilege last month to be present at Sen. Robert Byrd’s last major appearance in the Senate — I was testifying in front of the Rules and Administration Committee on the filibuster, and the West Virginia Democrat arrived in the middle of the hearing to deliver personally his statement on the subject.

[IMGCAP(1)]The hearing came to a halt in the middle of testimony by Walter Mondale as Byrd was wheeled in to the hearing room and up to his seat. His body faltered a bit as he turned the pages of his statement, and he occasionally stumbled a touch as he read. But the passion and eloquence were there just as they had been countless times over the previous decades, and his energy level grew as he moved well into his perorations.

It was amazing to be in the room. Every Senator there from both parties, along with Mondale, former Oklahoma Sen. Don Nickles (R), and the audience and staff, were transfixed. This was Robert Byrd, the guardian of the Senate, the historian and chronicler, rules champion, longest-serving Member of the body, twice Majority Leader, throwing himself at the age of 92 into a defense of the Senate and its traditions while decrying the deterioration of its norms and practices.

He said: “A true filibuster is a fight, not a threat or a bluff. For most of the Senate’s history, Senators motivated to extend debate had to hold the floor as long as they were physically able. The Senate was either persuaded by the strength of their arguments or unconvinced by either their commitment or their stamina. True filibusters were therefore less frequent, and more commonly discouraged, due to every Senator’s understanding that such undertakings required grueling personal sacrifice, exhausting preparation, and a willingness to be criticized for disrupting the nation’s business. Now, unbelievably, just the whisper of opposition brings the ‘world’s greatest deliberative body’ to a grinding halt. Why? Because this once highly respected institution has become overwhelmingly consumed by a fixation with money and media.”

Every Member, he suggested, spends too much time raising money and preening for the cameras — making the threat of any long, drawn-out debate a much more potent weapon, and thereby routinizing filibusters as effective tools of obstruction. But Byrd didn’t call for wholesale reform of the rules — he was too wedded to the role of the Senate as a protector of the minority. Still, what shone through in his statement and the way he delivered it was his dismay at how the norms of his beloved Senate had deteriorated, trivializing its standing.

No one could make these points with the resonance of Robert Byrd. The Senate was his life. When then-Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) was openly considering the “nuclear option” to in effect blow up Rule XXII in the middle of a session, I appeared on a panel with Byrd at the Center for American Progress to decry the move. I sat with him alone in an office before the event started, and he began to cry at the prospect that the Senate would be distorted through this kind of unilateral action, losing its fundamental character. He cared that deeply.

Like many others, I made pilgrimages to Byrd’s office to get my volumes of his history of the Senate inscribed and would converse with him about the chamber and about its role in the Constitution and in history. Byrd was not just a fierce protector of the Senate — he was in some ways even more passionate about protecting Congress against encroachment by the executive, whether in matters of war-making or the power of the purse. I doubt that any lawmaker ever has had more institutional patriotism than Byrd.

There are other senior Senators with style, intelligence and a passion for the Senate. There are some truly impressive new Members who care deeply about their own institution. But the sad fact is that there is no one who can step in at the moment and fill Byrd’s shoes.

The even sadder fact is that veneration for the Senate and its historical role is simply not on the radar screen of many current Members. They are driven more by ideological crusade, personal ambition or the War of the Roses between the parties that is leading to the outrageous misuse of the rules — filibusters against nominations that then garner unanimous votes? Anonymous holds that keep critical executive positions unfilled for months for petty purposes? — that is common now.

I have one deep regret about my interactions with Byrd. I had talked to him a few years back about continuity of Congress and the presidency. He was very supportive. I broached a delicate subject then: With the dangers posed by terrorist threats to Washington, the Presidential Succession Act of 1946 was dangerously outmoded and needed reform — including removing the President Pro Tem from a position high in the line of presidential succession.

I braced myself for a sharp reprover, but Byrd said he understood fully the need for reform. Of course, the idea of having a 92-year-old — any 92-year-old, no matter how talented — third in the line of succession is frankly absurd, but that is only one reason why having Congressional leaders in the line needs to be re-examined and reformed. But Byrd’s health took a turn for the worse after our conversation, and I was not able to follow up. Had Byrd become a champion on continuity, we would have actually seen Congress do something other than its shameful neglect.

This is a tough year for the Senate, losing Edward Kennedy and Robert Byrd. There are no indispensable people — but those two came awfully close to indispensable for a functioning Senate that would make the framers proud.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.