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Saturn Smith
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JUNE 28, 2010 12:40PM

Byrd should have left the Senate sooner

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Robert Byrd, the longest-serving Senator in the history of the U.S. Senate, has died at age 92. Salon has a nice tribute to his complicated, controversial, sometimes admirable, and at times downright ugly career. I'd like to talk about the future.

First: Who's going to replace this guy?

The governor, Democrat Joe Manchin III, will appoint an interim senator to serve in Byrd's place until there can be a special election, possibly in November. Here's the relevant WV law:

Any vacancy occurring in the office of secretary of state, auditor, treasurer, attorney general, commissioner of agriculture, United States senator, judge of the supreme court of appeals or in any office created or made elective to be filled by the voters of the entire state, judge of a circuit court or judge of a family court is filled by the governor of the state by appointment. If the unexpired term of a judge of the supreme court of appeals, a judge of the circuit court or judge of a family court is for less than two years or if the unexpired term of any other office named in this section is for a period of less than two years and six months, the appointment to fill the vacancy is for the unexpired term. If the unexpired term of any office is for a longer period than above specified, the appointment is until a successor to the office has timely filed a certificate of candidacy, has been nominated at the primary election next following such timely filing and has thereafter been elected and qualified to fill the unexpired term. Proclamation of any election to fill an unexpired term is made by the governor of the state and, in the case of an office to be filled by the voters of the entire state, must be published prior to the election as a Class II-0 legal advertisement in compliance with the provisions of article three, chapter fifty-nine of this code and the publication area for the publication is each county of the state.

You got all of that? The tricky part is this: Robert Byrd's current term ends on January 3, 2013, which means there's about 2.5 years + one week left on that term. Normally, that would mean a special election to be held this November -- however, since the primary election has already been held, and because West Virginia requires a state party-sanctioned primary as a qualification, Byrd's successor will most likely be appointed to simply fill the term -- because the next primary is likely to be set for early 2012. So Manchin will appoint some sturdy state Democrat -- perhaps former party chairman Nick Casey -- and then, most likely, the governor himself will run for the seat. Until then, the Senate can expect yet another caretaker to hold the seat -- someone benign and predictably Democratic. I'm not saying that's a disappointment to me, as I'd like to see the Dems hold onto any edge they can in voting, but it's not in the best interest or the design of the Senate to have temp Senators sitting around (though -- the guy from Delaware is actually doing a pretty good job).

9F4EE698-35DB-4984-A30C-DE276490A5C2.jpgRobert Byrd in 2007/ Official Photo

The sad part of this (well, for those of us not in West Virginia or part of the larger Byrd family) is that this could have been arranged better, and earlier. Byrd hasn't been particularly present, physically and, some have wondered, mentally, for quite some time. He's been wheeled in to vote the party line this year a few times, but he's also been in and out of the hospital, and one has to wonder whether it was Robert Byrd or his staff that was handling most of the constituent issues that came across his desk. All this time, he's also been the President pro tempore of the Senate -- third in line (behind Vice President Biden and Speaker Pelosi) to the presidency. I can't believe that anyone, including Robert Byrd, thought it would have been a good idea for him to take on that role, if anything had happened to the president, vice president, and speaker. Yet the voters of West Virginia kept re-electing him, so Byrd it was.

So my second question for the future is this: Is there a way to prevent another Robert Byrd?

Short of term limits (of which I'm not a fan), I don't think there is. Putting any kind of clause that allows a state's governor or legislature to recall a member due to incapacitation starts to tread onto very dangerous ground. It's also in the interest of states to vote and vote and vote for the same Senator -- since seniority really is all about how long you can sit in the seat, the longer he stayed, the better his position to help West Virginia (which he and/or his staff kept doing right to the end: see, for instance, S.1534, the Appalachian Development Highway System Completion Act of 2009).

I know it's human nature to deny that death is approaching, and that one of the hardest things anyone has to do is to admit that they're no longer the man or woman they once were. Byrd, when he ran again in 2006, clearly believed he could finish out his term. Somewhere along the way, though, it must have become clear -- to him, to his staff, to those close to him -- that this was no longer possible.

It's a shame that a man who served for so long and so deeply respected the institution of the Senate couldn't have had the good sense, or good advice, to leave it while he was still an effective Senator, to get out while he could still live to see his tribute, and to go while he might have had some influence over his successor. That surely would have served the people of West Virginia -- and the people of the whole country -- better than to cling to the job long past his ability to exercise it faithfully and consistently.

Instead, Byrd has set an example that other states and other senators may be eager to follow: a man serving until the end, so synonymous with his state's interests that they are willing to re-elect him as long as he'll run, whether he is the best candidate for the job or not.

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If Byrd deeply respected the institution, that's a funny way to show it. If he truly wanted to help people, there are plenty of other avenues beyond politics to do so and most of them are far less self-serving than what often masquerades as public service under the rotunda.

My cynical nature regarding politics would tell me what he respected most of all was whatever power he could clutch to his own chest. Sadly, there are plenty more just like him both inside and outside the Beltway.
oh, he was just one of those people who wanted to be carried out, like Helen Thomas.
He did well for West Virginia, if not for everyone else necessarily, but, he will be remembered.
I think what it came down to was for Byrd to admit he couldn't do the job any more, he would have had to admit he was less with it that he'd always been -- which is a very hard step to take.
Agreed. Sadly, the art of making a graceful exit is rarely practiced.
So true, Steve.

Myself, I'll quit early only if promised fireworks and a parade.
About 20 years ago I had dinner and drinks with the Executive Director of the WVA Democratic Party. I asked if Byrd would ever retire, and he said, "Byrd would never retire, because of the his seniority and all the programs and services he brought to the state."

That Byrd would die in office is no surprise to residents of WVA. Sorry it is to you.
I don't think Saturn is surprised that Byrd stuck around until the very end. But she's right that it doesn't serve the Senate well.

I also disagree strongly with term limits. What would help prevent future instances of Senators who should retire but don't, is by facilitating more competitive elections. This is done with campaign finance reform, including publicly financed elections, and, ironically, fostering stronger parties that can ease out incumbents who need to go.

Yes, none of this is going to happen anytime soon.
In his last years Strom Thurmond used to go to a hospital after senate sessions. Byrd should have left years ago.

West Viginia is still one of the poorest states in the union with almost every road, bridge and government building named after him.

His biggest claim to fame was his knowledge of the senate rules.
Yeah, OE, I'm not surprised, just sort of saddened.
For the most part, U.S. legislators perform most admirably when they're disabled.
Not too many people leave the Senate vertically. They may be embarrassed out, voted out--or they recognize the likelihood that they're going to be embarrassed when they're voted out. But as far as admitting they're past due when it comes to mental acuity: Senators, judges and, from time to unfortunate time, doctors, don't seem to know when to say "all done."
My only opinion about the will of the people of West Virginia is that I'm fortified to know it hasn't to this day been usurped - regardless of what I may think about its choices.
Excellent point S.S.! Byrd should have left in 2006. The Senate is a fascinating body, and its members provide such an interesting example of the clash between service and personal ego. Byrd would make a great main character for a play. Your analysis is clear eyed and valid though. All would have been best served if he had planned an orderly exit.
the problem with term limits is two-fold: neophytes are useless. and worse, it encourages looting on the way out.

the cure is easy. write a new constitution. one whose stated purpose is to empower the people to direct their public affairs 'for the people.' this isn't going to happen. i wish i had known that 40 years ago, before i wasted my time saying the emperor is naked.

so americans will continue to say 'shudda' but will never stir themselves to change things. it's no wonder the beltway bandits are so open about their knavery in recent years, they have finally realized the chumps will never rebel, as long as 'sytycd' is free-to-air.
Thanks for this informative report on Byrd. His ability to see his own retirement as beneficial for the people that he served was clouded by his tenure and apparent lack of connection to their real needs. R
Having lived, worked and having family in WV I can only say one thing. WV is in trouble now.

WV has lived off the billions that Byrd has sent to the state. The man did not bring home the bacon. He brought home the whole hog. As the industrial base of WV went out, it was replaced by Byrd money. Now there is no more Byrd money and no more industry.

Byrd deserves kudos for being a voice crying in the wilderness in protest of the the Iraq War, but in my book, not much else. He was the epitome of what's wrong with the Senate, stentorian speeches for public consumption and back-door deals made to bring home the pork -- especially for special interests in his state -- read Big Coal.

Despite Byrd's half-century feeding at the Federal trough, WV remains the 48th poorest state in the nation and has the greatest number of people without a college degree. And unlike the states of the Deep South that remain crippled by their long history of Jim Crow segregation, WV is 98% white.

In many ways, Byrd was like a Mideast potentate -- posing like an educated and thoughtful ruler, throwing just enough bones to the people to keep them placated, while damning their future by betting it on an economy based solely on a dirty fossil fuel.

So, no, Byrd is no statesman in my book -- he wasn't even a good Senator for the citizens of WV.
Byrd was a living advertisement for term limits (just like Strom Thurmond, and others of that era). There is no good reason for anyone to be in office longer than the majority of the nation has been alive.
I completely agree with you, but I think Byrd identified so thoroughly with the Senate that he believed he was serving the interest of West Virginia simply by occupying the seat, no matter how incapacitated he was. And there's a long history of Southerners who are Senators for decades, and, of course, chicanery about succession. Thinking of the stubborn refusal to go when it is obvious to everyone how loathed and ineffective you are, will we be hearing more from you on the disgusting Paterson v. the Assembly situation?
You know it's funny, when Mitt Romney took office in Massachusetts he worried a lot of Democrats by taking seriously his promise to uproot the Finneran political machine on Beacon Hill.

Romney's idea was that he would usher in a new age of Massachusetts Republicanism. Instead, when he finally checkmated Finneran and forced him to resign, he succeeded in bursting open the floodgates of a younger, more energetic, more liberal Democratic party that had been held back for decades by the crusty party establishment.

The explosive revitalization eventually brought Massachusetts a black governor, gay marriage, massive education reform, a public healthcare option, a pioneering open records program, and on and on.

In short, nothing proved worse for liberalism in Massachusetts than Democrat Tom Finneran himself, and nothing proved better than Mitt Romney, the Republican who chased him out.

Based on that experience, I would say that all the aging Democratic establishment needs is its hat in its hands and a swift kick in the pants in the direction of the exit.

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