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).
Robert 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.