Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Byrd's Life Of Learning‏

The Progress Report

June 29, 2010 by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Matt Corley, Benjamin Armbruster, Zaid Jilani, Alex Seitz-Wald, Igor Volsky, and Tanya Somanader

Byrd's Life Of Learning

Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV), America's longest-serving member of Congress and a "titan" of the U.S. Senate, died on Monday after 51 years and eight full terms in the Senate. Throughout his tenure, Byrd held a number of leadership positions, including majority and minority leader and president pro tem. "Raised by an aunt and uncle in grinding poverty and essentially self-taught, Byrd read deeply -- especially the US Constitution, the King James Version of the Bible, histories of the Roman republic, and English political history. He rose to leadership in the Senate by massive effort and an unrivaled grasp of Senate procedure, which he shared with colleagues on both sides of the aisle." "His life is the Senate," said former senator Bob Dole. "He knows more about it than anyone living or dead. He doesn't watch television. He doesn't follow sports. He's dedicated his life to the institution and his family." Indeed, Byrd's career was one of great evolution through education and learning. Despite his early and ugly involvement with the Ku Klux Klan, Byrd later became "a passionate advocate for civil rights, and he was one of the most vocal supporters of legislation making the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. a national holiday." Later in his career, Byrd declared that he would change his vote on the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which he initially filibustered. With his early opposition to the Iraq war, his ability to shape the Senate and its rules, and his tenacity to take on the coal industry, Byrd undoubtedly shaped his legacy and left a lasting imprint on the institution and our nation.

AN EARLY OPPONENT OF THE WAR: The New York Times' obituary notes that when asked how many presidents he served under, Byrd said, "None." "I have served with presidents, not under them," he would say. It was this belief in the legislature as a co-equal branch of government that led Byrd to stake out an early and rather prophetic opposition to the Iraq war. At a time when many lawmakers cowered to President Bush, Byrd opposed the 2002 congressional resolution often and loudly. It "amounted to a complete evisceration of the Congressional prerogative to declare war," he wrote in "Losing America," "and an outrageous abdication of responsibility to hand such unfettered discretion to this callow and reckless president." "How have we gotten to this low point in the history of Congress? Are we too feeble to resist the demands of a president who is determined to bend the collective will of Congress to his will -- a president who is changing the conventional understanding of the term 'self-defense'? And why are we allowing the executive to rush our decision-making right before an election?" Byrd asked in an October, 2002 New York Times op-ed. "We may not always be able to avoid war, particularly if it is thrust upon us, but Congress must not attempt to give away the authority to determine when war is to be declared." As the Washington Post's Greg Sargent observes, "Byrd's stand against the Iraq invasion is not just a testament to his own courage. It's also a testament to the cowardice of other members of his party at an absolutely critical moment -- an epic cave that may have altered the course of history and should never be forgotten." Byrd's opposition to the Iraq War "was made all the more forceful by the fact that he had staunchly supported the Vietnam War -- and could speak with the authority of someone who had an institutional memory of the consequences of that decision," Sargent added.

RESPECT FOR THE SENATE: A strong and loud defender of Senate rules and procedure, Byrd authored a multi-volume history on Senate procedure and often delivered lengthy speeches on the floor reminding his colleagues of the failures of the Roman Senate. "He was as much a part of the Senate as the marble busts that line its chamber and its corridors," President Obama said in a statement. "His profound passion for that body and its role and responsibilities was as evident behind closed doors as it was in the stemwinders he peppered with history." Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) remembered Byrd as "one of the greatest minds the world has ever seen." "He was the foremost guardian of the Senate's complex rules, procedures and customs, and as leader of both the majority and the minority caucuses in the Senate, he knew better than most that legislation is the art of compromise." Known for his defense of the filibuster, Byrd still criticized the way in which Republicans manipulated the rules to thwart the legislative progress. "The right to filibuster anchors this necessary fence. But it is not a right intended to be abused," Byrd wrote in May of this year. "During this 111th Congress in particular the minority has threatened to filibuster almost every matter proposed for Senate consideration. I find this tactic contrary to each Senator's duty to act in good faith." "A true filibuster is a fight, not a threat or a bluff. For most of the Senate's history, Senators motivated to extend debate had to hold the floor as long as they were physically able. The Senate was either persuaded by the strength of their arguments or unconvinced by either their commitment or their stamina. True filibusters were therefore less frequent, and more commonly discouraged, due to every Senator's understanding that such undertakings required grueling personal sacrifice, exhausting preparation, and a willingness to be criticized for disrupting the nation's business. Now, unbelievably, just the whisper of opposition brings the 'world's greatest deliberative body' to a grinding halt. Why?"

GROWING SUPPORT FOR CHANGE: Once a strong proponent of the coal industry, Byrd began to advocate for reform of the industry towards the end of his career, working with other senators to craft global warming legislation that would smooth the transition for miners and the coal industry to a clean energy economy. In an op-ed published in December of last year, Byrd criticized mountaintop removal and urged the West Virginia coal mining industry to innovate and adapt to the growing threat of climate change. "To be part of any solution, one must first acknowledge a problem. To deny the mounting science of climate change is to stick our heads in the sand and say 'deal me out.' West Virginia would be much smarter to stay at the table." "The truth is that some form of climate legislation will likely become public policy because most American voters want a healthier environment," Byrd predicted. "Major coal-fired power plants and coal operators operating in West Virginia have wisely already embraced this reality, and are making significant investments to prepare. The future of coal and indeed of our total energy picture lies in change and innovation." Byrd also characterized Sen. Lisa Murkowski's (R-AK) resolution to block the Environmental Protection Agency's authority to regulate carbon as a vote "to dismiss scientific facts" about climate change. He took Massey Energy to task for its "disregard for human life and safety" in refusing to fund a new school so students could move away from the company's coal processing plant. "Such arrogance suggests a blatant disregard for the impact of their mining practices on our communities, residents and particularly our children," Byrd said in a statement. "These are children's lives we are talking about." Following the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Massey mine in West Virginia on April 5, Byrd challenged Massey's statements about safety and "demanded explanations from the mine regulator for starting aggressive inspections after the disaster." "I cannot fathom how an American business could practice such disgraceful health and safety policies while simultaneously boasting about its commitment to the safety of workers," Byrd said. He also criticized the Mine Safety and Health Administration, saying he is "perplexed" as to how the tragedy could have happened "given the significant increases in funding and manpower" Congress has approved for the agency.

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