A master of Senate procedure and federal spending, Sen. Robert C. Byrd died Monday at 92 after the longest congressional career in American history - and it’s easy to see the mark he left on his beloved home state of West Virginia.
There’s the Byrd Biomedical Research Center, the Byrd Higher Education Center, the Byrd Center for Educational Technologies and the Byrd Eastern Panhandle Health Professions Center - and those are just the buildings named after his wife, Erma.
For Mr. Byrd himself, the list of projects for the home folks runs into the dozens and dozens, many of them projects for which he secured taxpayer funding. It includes: two federal courthouses and a prison, the visitors center at Harpers Ferry National Historic Park, a scholarship, hospitals and clinics, a high school in Clarksburg, a 720-foot automobile bridge over the Ohio River, the Robert C. Byrd Expressway, the Robert C. Byrd Freeway, the Robert C. Byrd Highway and Robert C. Byrd Drive.
Mr. Byrd was more than West Virginia’s link to the federal Treasury during his nearly six decades in Washington. He wrote the book on the history of the Senate, and wrote or revised many of its procedures. He was a gifted rhetorician whose command of the classics made history lessons out of his floor speeches. And he was the premier guardian of the legislative branch’s constitutional primacy in the American system of government.
“He was a Member of this nation’s Congress for more than a quarter of the time it has existed, and longer than a quarter of today’s sitting senators and the president of the United States have been alive,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat. “A dozen men called the Oval Office his own while Sen. Byrd called the Capitol building his office - and he would be the first to remind you that those two branches are equal in the eyes of the Constitution.”
Mr. Byrd died at 3 a.m. at Inova Fairfax Hospital, a spokesman said. He was admitted last week for what doctors thought was heat exhaustion and dehydration, but doctors said other conditions developed and his office announced Sunday that he was “seriously ill.”
On Monday, Mr. Byrd’s Senate desk, which occupies a prime position on the center aisle, was draped in black, and a vase of white roses sat atop it.
As senior senator from the party holding the majority, Mr. Byrd had been president pro tempore, putting him in the line of presidential succession behind the vice president and speaker of the House. The Senate elected a new president pro tem, Sen. Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii, and swore him in to begin business Monday afternoon.
But most of the day’s work was remembering Mr. Byrd.
“He not only wrote the book on it, he was a living repository of its rules, its customs and its prerogatives,” said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican. “It would be a mistake to think that Senator Byrd became synonymous with the Senate simply because he served in it longer than anybody else. Rather, it was a fitting coincidence that a man who cherished and knew this place so well would become its longest serving member.”
During his six years in the House and more than 50 in the Senate, Mr. Byrd took part in the bitter fights over civil rights, first as an opponent and later a supporter, and fought the key battles over budgets and spending that dominated much of the 1980s and 1990s. He saw fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, and in the last decade had been one of the key voices against the war in Iraq.
For most of that time, until his frailty confined him to a wheelchair and he began to miss votes regularly, Mr. Byrd was a dominant figure in the Senate, policing its institutional prerogatives and procedures against encroachments large and small, even down to the use of cell phones and other electronic devices in the Senate chamber. At one time, a glare from the senator in his seat, right on the aisle, was enough to silence the chamber.
But as much as anything, Mr. Byrd will be remembered for his mastery of Congress’ power of the purse, and he reveled in being called the “pork king.”
As the longtime top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, he secured more than $3 billion in earmarked spending for West Virginia, taxpayer watchdogs estimate. He did not relinquish that post until the beginning of the current Congress.
He cast more than 18,600 votes during his time in the Senate, 2,000 more than anyone else in history.