WASHINGTON — Before making legislative history — today he became the longest-serving member of Congress since 1789 — Sen. Robert Byrd spent a lifetime mastering it.
The Democrat for West Virginia once dazzled a British delegation, complaining that Americans didn’t know English history, by reciting all the kings and queens of England, from Egbert (829-839) through Elizabeth II, including riffs on their children and notable moments in their reign.
His four-volume history of the US Senate, based in part on a decade of floor speeches delivered on slow Friday mornings in the 1980s, became an instant reference on Capitol Hill. His encyclopedic grasp of Senate procedure, honed by constant study, is also a resource to colleagues on both sides of the aisle.
Elected to the House of Representatives in 1952, Byrd went on to serve a record nine terms in the Senate. As of today, that adds up to 20,774 days of service in the Congress, or 56 years and 320 days – a record.
Arizona Democrat Carl Hayden previously held the record of longest-serving Congress member, serving from 1929 to 1969. He was known as the “Silent Senator.”
“He is best known as the foremost guardian of the Senate’s complex rules, procedures and customs,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in a tribute to Byrd on the floor of the Senate today. “Today’s milestone is another record that will never be broken.”
In a bid to educate his Senate colleagues on the perils of the line-item veto, Senator Byrd taught himself Roman history by reading accounts of Julius Caesar, Livy, Plutarch, Tacitus and others.
“When the Roman Senate gave up its control of the purse strings, it gave away its power to check the executive. From that point on, the Senate declined … and the Roman republic fell,” he said in one of 14 addresses on the Senate floor in 1993.
“He delivered each of these speeches entirely from memory and without recourse to notes or consultation with staff aides,” says former Senate historian Richard Baker, who helped Byrd publish the lectures into a book, “The Senate of the Roman Republic: Addresses on the History of Roman Constitutionalism.”
His floor speeches deploring a rush to war in Iraq in 2003 sounded a similar theme: the dangers of the Senate ceding war powers to the executive branch, even and especially at a time of national crisis.
But Byrd, by his own account, was not always on the right side of history. He publicly regretted his membership in the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s and his vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. “He had real leadership qualities. Ironically, he discovered that with a leadership role in the [local] Klan,” says Ray Smock, director of the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, W.Va.
Budget hawks also criticize Byrd for the billions in targeted projects he secured for this state over a near half century on the Senate Appropriations Committee, where he now serves as chairman emeritus. From 1991-2009, Byrd delivered $3.7 billion in special projects, or pork, for his state.
“Senator Byrd has used the federal treasury as his own personal ATM by sending billions of dollars to West Virginia,” says David Williams, vice president for policy for Citizens Against Government Waste. He has “earned himself a special spot in the pantheon of pork barrel spending.”
“Has he really helped the state? They still have a very poor per capita [incomes], very high unemployment rates. They have beautiful roads, but not sure that West Virginians are all that better off because he’s been a member of Congress,” he adds.