An old Byrd drops off his perch
Sad news about Robert Byrd, the 92-year-old Democrat who died today. The longest serving member of congress in history, his extraordinary longevity redefines the phrase ‘job for life’, and his own journey – he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s, and filibustered against the Civil Right Act in the 1960s, but ultimately became a reliable defender of civil rights and dramatically more liberal – in some ways mirrors America’s own journey, at least on questions of equality. His demise also creates an immediate headache for the White House, which now has to consider how it will pass its financial reform proposals without Byrd. (There was something really extraordinary about seeing him rolled out in a wheelchair for the healthcare votes.)
Of course, at 92, Byrd’s death will have come as a shock to very few. And it’s a reminder of the fact that the US Senate can only be second to the upper reaches of the Vatican as a collection of the vastly powerful who are also exceptionally long in the tooth. The average age in the Senate is 63; the average age in our own House of Commons is 50. You aren’t even allowed to stand until you reach 30.
It’s an august institution, and part of its authority is based on the experience of its members, the institutional memory that the system builds in. Still, it isn’t hard to see the downside. Part of the reason senators are so aged is that once you have a seat, it’s very rare to be turfed out; for most senators, the position might as well be a sinecure for all the threat they face to their livelihoods if they do a bad job. Byrd himself was an absolute devotee of the institution and its traditions. But the sense of the Senate as an impenetrable old boys club is hardly conducive to encouraging the best young American minds to stick it out. The institution regularly ties itself in arcane procedural knots, and seniority is so important that you have to pay your dues for years before you develop any real influence. As Mark Halperin and John Heilemann make clear in their superb account of the last presidential election, Race of a Lifetime, Barack Obama was one of those who grew frustrated at a system that can sometimes seem truly dinosaurish: it was one of the reasons he started to wonder about running for president.
That’s not to say Byrd was a dinosaur himself, or anything but a powerful advocate for his state – he was just very thoroughly ensconced, as well. And to balance the frustrations, there’s also something rather wonderful about the Senate’s collective years of experience, the awesome dignity that such a collection of proven statesmen (and rather fewer women) bestow on the legislature. That authority is one of the things that makes it such a strong balance to the power of the presidency, impressive even when it’s frustrating, and it’s something that our own rather younger representatives must envy from time to time. Not many of the younger MPs who owed everything to Tony Blair – nor of the new crop who owe everything to David Cameron – will ever have anything as grand as this said of them, as Republican senator John Cornyn said of Byrd: “He believed in the Senate as an institution. He believed in the constitutional role of the Senate not to be a rubber stamp for the president and he believed fiercely in his state and his constituents there. Senator Byrd was the keeper of the flame.”
(Photo: Robert Byrd speaking at a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC in May. Alex Wong/Getty Images)Tagged in: Robert Byrd, US Senate, washington
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