March 8, 2013 | 0 comments
The demands of the postwar world have transformed the Senate from an “exclusive club” into something like a convocation of princes from a hundred private fiefdoms. Therein lies the dilemma of Majority Leader Robert Byrd.
In his masterwork, The American Commonwealth, Lord Bryce wrote a century ago what remains a fair description of senators today:
[R]eviewing the whole hundred years’ history of the Senate, the true explanation of its capacity is to be found in the superior attraction which it has for the ablest and most ambitious men … [But] a sort of Olympic dwelling place of statesmen and sages … it never was; and nobody would now so describe it. It is a company of shrewd and vigorous men who have fought their way to the front by the ordinary methods of American politics, and on many of whom the battle has left its stains.
Robert Byrd has known battle. Born into rural poverty, he was a store clerk and butcher, before opening his own shop after World War II. He eyed and won elective office for the first time in 1946, when he took a seat in the West Virginia House of Delegates. To the State Senate in 1950, Congress in 1952, to one of the state’s two then-vacant U.S. Senate seats in 1958—it was an awesome climb from shopkeeper. Almost equally remarkable was his dogged pursuit of education. Byrd won his law degree in 1963, at the age of 45, after more than two decades of night college and night law classes.
By a combination of ability and diligence—and by attention to the mundane and tedious tasks of a shopkeeper—Byrd advanced from a leadership job of minor importance to a key role in national affairs. When Senate Democrats organized for the new session in January of 1967, Ted Kennedy’s then-rising star was boosted by election to the Senate’s number-two leadership post, Majority Whip. Byrd was elected to the comparatively insignificant number-three spot, Secretary of the Democratic Conference.
Majority Whip is a prestige job, but it is also something of a nuisance job—knowing which senators are in town, and when, holding off votes until this one’s plane lands or that one returns from the White House. It was the burden of these trivial affairs, these daily nuisance-chores for colleagues, which Byrd offered to lift from Whip Kennedy’s shoulders, an offer which Kennedy, mourning his last brother, accepted. And it was appreciation for these daily protections that provided the 31-24 margin by which Byrd, in a stunning victory in January 1972, stripped the Whip mantle from a post-Chappaquiddick Kennedy. A loss from which Kennedy’s Senate career has never truly recovered, for Robert Byrd it was the big step up.
Byrd appeared by cast of mind and temperament the perfect Whip. He seemed well-suited to the daily chores of the Senate floor, and by exercising those responsibilities he freed the Majority Leader, Mike Mansfield, for other more interesting, and presumably more important, affairs. In fact, it was Byrd’s attention to the practical duties of a Whip which served as the point of attack in the attempt by “liberal” senators to prevent his accession to the top post upon Mansfield’s retirement. Byrd would be unable to lead the Senate properly, they argued, because he was a handyman, not an “issue-man.” He lacked, as it were, the moral authority which comes to one who has exhibited a consistent attachment to liberal-progressive ideals.
The alternative was Hubert Humphrey, whose health was beginning to decline but whose ideological attachment was unquestionable. Yet the Humphrey effort never quite got off the ground, in spite of Senator Kennedy’s success at persuading other contenders to withdraw and some agreement within the “liberal” bloc to back Humphrey. Partial agreement was not enough: When influential “liberals” such as Abraham Ribicoff refused to back off their previous commitments to Byrd, the Humphrey candidacy was finished.
So Robert Byrd assumed the office of Majority Leader. An intelligent, hard-working, canny man, he views his role as one of expediting Senate business. He tells freshmen senators what has been told freshmen for decades: that they have two types of colleagues, “work horses and show horses.” It has never been in doubt which kind Byrd is, or considers himself to be.
Criticized in the early weeks of the Senate debate on energy for not pushing harder for the Carter program, Byrd responded, “I always feel it best for the Majority Leader to stay in the background, unless it is necessary for him to move forward.” He defends Senate prerogative’s against executive pressure, often asking that the Senate be allowed to “work its will.” But he will also fight for his own prerogatives as Majority Leader. He is capable of being a “tough cookie,” more willing to reward and punish than was Mansfield, although he seems not as harsh with those who cross him as was Lyndon Johnson. He knows the ins and outs of Senate procedure as well as anyone, and much better than most.
The ideological criticism remains, of course, that Byrd is, as one of his disapproving colleagues put it, like a “plumber”—not caring what is in the pipes as long as things keep moving. Depending on your view, that may not be such a bad thing. What does seem worrisome has been Byrd’s noticeable lack of success at keeping the pipes clear whenever important issues were before the Senate. Several times in the past year, and to an ever increasing degree over the past several years, legislation has been stuck on the floor for days and the Senate held hostage by a handful of intransigents. Best publicized of these incidents was the two-week delay of the natural-gas-price bill carried on by Senators Abourezk and Metzenbaum last September.
To understand the significance of these stalls, consider how they differ from the “talkathons” of old. Indeed, they are not talkathons at all. They are shrewd attacks upon the weakest links in the chain of present-day Senate procedure. That means that in large part they are attacks on the power of the Majority Leader.
In the most passionate Senate debate of our time, the opponents of the 1964 civil rights bill by and large accepted defeat once a cloture motion to end their filibuster had passed. But when cloture was invoked on the central amendment to the gas bill, the filibuster had only just begun. Under Senate rules, amendments “at the desk” before cloture is invoked may be brought up for consideration after cloture. What are not allowed are “dilatory” motions and tactics—that is, purposely delaying the bill’s passage.
That didn’t stop Abourezk and Metzenbaum. Following the methods of Senator James Allen of Alabama, who over the past few years has perfected the procedural stall—and who, although an opponent of price controls, advised the duo throughout- Abourezk and Metzenbaum had 508 amendments filed at the desk by the time cloture passed. Since each amendment was itself debatable, the invoking of cloture became a meaningless exercise.
After two weeks as hostage of the intransigents, having used every weapon in his arsenal without success, Byrd reacted with a display of raw power. On Monday, October 3, after a parley with Vice President Mondale, Byrd requested a “ruling of the chair” from Mondale to the effect that it was within the power of “the chair” to rule out of order any amendment it deemed dilatory on its face. Mondale agreed, and when the ruling was appealed by the intransigents, a majority of senators—tired and frustrated after two weeks of non-debate—also agreed. Several hours passed. At four o’clock in the afternoon, Byrd took the floor and began to call up Metzenbaum’s amendments. One after another, Byrd called them up and Mondale slapped them down. To screams of protest from others on the floor, Mondale cast a deaf ear, refusing to recognize anyone but Byrd—and thereby preventing any of his rulings from being appealed to the whole Senate. Within 20 minutes, the Byrd- Mondale combo had disposed of some 30 amendments; the intransigents buckled and agreed to allow final passage of the bill the next day. One abuse of the Senate’s procedures had instigated another more stunning and dangerous.
This is just one instance of how the numerous Senate rules and traditions that protect minorities of Members and individual prerogatives are breaking down. Ultimately, the survival of those protections hinges upon the existence of some reasonable ethic of fair play, which prevents their tyrannical (and sometimes successful) use by zealots. Yet the very existence of such an ethic presupposes a body infused with enough sense of common purpose to sustain those standards. That does not mean an agreement on particular issues. It does mean there need exist a sense of membership strong enough to suppress the extravagances of ideology and the temptations of the nightly news—a sense the Senate now lacks.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?