You’ll quickly hear loads concerning the “Byrd Rule” – Who is that this Byrd man? : NPR
A bipartisan group of Senators – (from left) Strom Thurmond, RS.C., Republican Leader Howard Baker of Tennessee, Democratic Leader Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia and Birch Bayh, D-Ind. – Hold a press conference in 1980. Charles Harrisity / AP hide caption
Charles Harrity / AP
Charles Harrity / AP
Even if President Biden gets his $ 1.2 trillion infrastructure bill through the Senate with Republican help, he’ll still face a tougher climb and a partisan wall to pass a massive $ 3.5 trillion spending bill full of Democratic priorities.
The Republicans are not on board with this bill, so the Democrats are trying to get the bill passed by simple majority using a maneuver known as reconciliation.
Reconciliations are not subject to the filibuster. For example, they have been used in the past to enact significant changes to tax and spending laws, beginning with President Ronald Reagan’s groundbreaking budget in 1981. Many partisan preferences can be enacted this way, but there is a limit.
Some priorities, including new voting laws, may not be addressed. Why? Because everything has to be tied to the budget. This requirement was originally the work of one man, Senator Robert C. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat.
After Reagan’s breakthrough in 1981, reconciliation was used for a variety of purposes beyond just budgeting. As an institutionalist of the Senate, an advocate of its role and traditions, Byrd saw presidents and majority parties overwhelm the views of the minority. As Chairman of the Democrats in the Senate, he introduced a restriction on reconciliation from 1985, an exclusion for all matters that are considered “outside” the budget.
This restriction has been known in the Senate as the “Byrd Rule” for decades, and the process of qualifying items is now known as the “Byrd Bad”.
Who was this Byrd man and how did he come to be so powerful?
Who Was Robert Byrd?
Byrd first came to Capitol Hill as a Congressman in the same month that President Harry Truman left the White House in 1953.
Byrd was still in the Senate when Barack Obama became president in 2009. And Byrd was still a senator when he died the following year, ending the longest career in Congressional history.
In his day, Byrd was never a household name, even when he was the Senate majority leader. When he appeared on television to respond to a presidential address, Byrd looked awkward and out of his element.
But Byrd was at home in the Senate, where he served longer than anyone in history and made himself the chronicler and custodian of the institution.
In 1946, Byrd won his first election for office and played his violin to draw crowds to the screamers and small towns of southern West Virginia on his way to become the state legislature.
He also briefly joined the Ku Klux Klan, popular in his rural district, which he would later regret. Throughout his career, he campaigned for coal mining and other industries important to his home state, while trying to find other sources of employment for his constituents.
He landed in the Senate after a stay in the US House of Representatives with the historic democratic wave of 1958. He was re-elected eight times. But its importance went far beyond mere seniority. The length of his career could only imagine the tremendous changes he was seeing in Congress, in the country, and even in himself.
Power in the Senate
Byrd spent most of his Senate career at or near the height of his power. In 1967 he rose to the leaders of the party leadership for the first time as conference secretary, four years later he became majority leader (replacing Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts) and finally majority leader in 1977. He remained the minority leader of the Democratic Minority Leader for the next twelve years, half of which during the Reagan years 1981-1987.
Some credited Byrd’s choice as a whip on Kennedy’s more casual approach to the job, which contrasted with Byrd’s own. Long known for spending endless hours on topics and personal contact in West Virginia, Byrd brought almost the same spirit and discipline to his leadership style. He looked after his band of ambitious and contentious colleagues, paying attention to their schedules and political needs.
When he decided to step down as chairman in 1989, he became chairman of the Committee on Budgets, a position he had been waiting for since joining the committee three decades earlier. He also became Senate President pro tempore, a largely ceremonial position held by the senior majority senator and the third in the constitutional line of presidential succession.
Byrd would spend the next two decades directing as much federal spending as possible to his home state, saying he wanted to be “West Virginia’s billion dollar industry.”
In 2009, having largely achieved that goal, Byrd put down his gavel for means, admitting that by age 91, his health and energy were no longer what they were before. However, he held the title of President pro tempore until his death in June 2010.
Byrd was known for his love for the Senate and commitment to its history, which he described in more than 100 formal lectures on the floor of the plenary chamber and bound in a book to mark the Senate’s 200th birthday in 1989. He had seen much of history itself and witnessed some of its more dramatic changes.
In 1964, he was part of a South Democratic filibuster against that year’s pioneering civil rights law. But in leadership he became a mainstream Democrat on both race and other issues. Although he defended the filibuster as a Senate tradition and guarantor of the rights of individual senators, he nonetheless voted to reduce the super majority required for Cloture from two-thirds to three-fifths in 1975.
No member of the Senate in any era was a better model of the self-made man. Born in 1917 to a miner in the Appalachian Mountains, he grew up with relatives after his mother died of the flu epidemic the following year.
He worked as a welder and meat cutter and attended four colleges but could never afford full-time studies. While in Congress, he earned a law degree from American University in 1963. He later decided to finish his bachelor’s thesis and received a bachelor’s degree in political science from Marshall University in 1994.
Always self-taught, Byrd read US history, constitutional law, classical literature, and Shakespeare. He also trained in the rules, precedents, and procedures of the Senate. Perhaps it is fitting that today he is mainly remembered for the complex procedural rule that bears his name.