June 28, 2010
The death of Senator Robert C. Byrd should give thoughtful Americans pause. Sen. Byrd was married for 69 years and was never tied to any moral or financial scandal. His personal life seems to have been exemplary, and in an age of tawdry political scandals this is not a small thing.
That he was briefly a member (a "Kleagle") of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s became a rightful source of lifelong shame to him. The legacy of his racist past popped up from time to time, as when he used a coarse racial epithet in a 2004 interview with FOX News.
Today, though, the media are waxing rhapsodic about Sen. Byrd's love of the Constitution. Many outlets are noting that he carried a small copy with him and that it was "well worn." The Associated Press even writes that "Byrd's lodestar was protecting the Constitution. He frequently pulled out a dog-eared copy of it from a pocket in one of his trademark three-piece suits."
No one can dispute that Sen. Byrd frequently cited the Constitution and the prerogatives of the Senate. Yet, one might question whether or not the Constitution truly was his "lodestar."
Sen. Byrd voted for some of the most anti-constitutional justices in Supreme Court history, men and women for whom the Constitution is legal putty to be reshaped in whatever form their ideological predispositions direct. He voted for an unconstitutional mandate upon all Americans that requires them to purchase health insurance. He supported Roe v. Wade and, perhaps most famously, welcomed his role as one of the Senates' most vigorous pork-barrel spenders.
"I'm going to do everything I can for the people of West Virginia. That's my duty! You can call it pork, if you want to, but that's all right. I know what my duty is. My duty is to my people," Sen. Byrd argued.
His people, indeed. In an embarrassing speech in 2002, he even called himself "Big Daddy" for his ability to funnel money to West Virginia projects.
Sen. Byrd called the Appropriations Committee, of which he was chair for many years, "the greatest committee." In one sense, he was right - Appropriations has authority to spend hundreds of billions of dollars annually, which even in spendthrift DC is real power.
Sen. Byrd steered hundreds of millions to the Mountaineer State. Perhaps it is for that reason that Sen. Byrd's name now graces nearly 40 locations in West Virginia.
Yet the Constitution nowhere gives Congress the authority to cull monies from the citizens of the various states and redistribute it as Senate power-brokers so desire. This is nothing more than legalized theft, and it is anti-constitutional.
Sen. Byrd, in all his writing and pondering about the U.S. Senate, its rules and its duties, should perhaps have taken counsel from the Senate's first president, Thomas Jefferson: "To take from one, because it is thought his own industry and that of his fathers has acquired too much, in order to spare to others, who, or whose fathers, have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association, the guarantee to everyone the free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it."
Being a big spender of other people's money is not the worst epitaph a statesman can have. Not the best, but not the worst.