There’s much to be said about the life and career of Sen. Robert C. Byrd, who represented all the possibilities for change that American life promises and delivers too rarely: Lifted from abject poverty to success and power through hard work; self-taught, to the point of erudition; an unhesitant racist who by the 1970s shed every hint of that heritage; the classic congressional inside operator who in the Bush years took up the voice of an outsider to describe abuses of power with a moral clarity that others weren’t capable of.
I don’t think quite enough has been said about the tremendous influence Byrd had on the culture and rhythms of the Senate, and the behavior of other senators. Here’s a modest anecdote: In the early 1990s, when I worked for Sen. Bill Bradley, we were collaborating with Ted Kennedy to get a significant improvement in student loans passed, using a trick to get it through the Senate Finance Committee and into a budget reconciliation bill. (We ultimately failed; this was one of many student-loan reforms that had to wait for the bill that President Obama signed along with health reform.) To do this, we needed to trespass lightly on the jurisdiction of the Appropriations Committee, which Sen. Byrd chaired. If there was any risk that he would object, we were sunk.
One afternoon, my phone rang at my desk – on the other end were Sen. Bradley and Sen. Kennedy, sitting together on the Senate floor but on separate phones. I would have to produce an extremely respectful letter to Sen. Byrd, asking for his permission. With excruciating precision and worry, they jointly dictated the exact form and language of the letter, the proper term of respect, the proper acknowledgment that we understood his committee’s jurisdiction and would cross it only for a greater good, and exactly what we were trying to achieve. Only after the letter had been signed and delivered could these two senators approach Byrd and ask for his blessing.
At this point, Bradley and Kennedy had been colleagues of Byrd’s for a combined 46 years. But there was no such thing as just going to him and asking him. There were forms, and the forms had to be followed. I’m not a particularly formal person, and such fuss and precision might seem grating, petty, or self-important in another setting. And neither senator was accustomed to showing such deference. But in this case it seemed entirely admirable and appropriate. The Senate can be a free-for-all. In theory, anyone can try to get away with anything – block anything, or force consideration of anything. The only way such an open institution can work, without descending into chaos, is if there are norms and formal assumptions, along with mutual respect.
And while there are plenty of structural reasons that the Senate is an uglier and less effective institution than it was even 15 years ago, the fading of Sen. Byrd’s stern authority as guardian of its traditions and courtesies surely cannot be discounted as a cause. It is not a role that can be filled anytime soon.
-- Mark Schmitt
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