Sustained Outrage

Sen. Byrd speaks: 50 years in the Senate

In this April 12, 2007 file photo, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., is pictured with American bald eagle “Challenger” on Capitol Hill in Washington, during the announcement of a resolution for American Eagle Day, which would celebrate the recovery and restoration of the American bald eagle, the national symbol of the United States.

This is a speech Sen. Byrd delivered on Jan. 6, 2009, to mark his 50 years in the U.S. Senate:

“In my multi-volume history of the Senate, I noted that the Senate is ‘the anchor of our Republic.’  It is, I wrote, ‘the morning and evening star in the American constitutional constellation.’ Today, I recall those words because I am even more convinced that the Senate still stand[s] as the great forum of constitutional American liberty. For five decades, I have seen this Senate weather the storms of adversity, withstand the barbs of cynics, and the attacks of critics as it provided continual stability and strength to our country during periods of strife and uncertainty.”

“The Senate has served our country so well because great and courageous Senators have always been willing to stay the course and keep the faith. And the Senate will continue to do so as long as there are members who understand the Senate=s constitutional role and who zealously guard its powers.”

“It has been said that this institution has a life of its own. That may be true, but I also know, from my half century of service in this chamber, that the life of the U.S. Senate is rooted in the character of the men and women who serve in it. During my five decades, I have served with some of the greatest Senators in history. This distinguished list includes my mentors, Senators Richard Russell, Lyndon Johnson, John Stennis, and Mike Mansfield. It includes the great Margaret Chase Smith who never hesitated to follow her conscience, Barry Goldwater and Phil Gramm, who were spear carriers for the Reagan Revolution, and those giants of the Senate, Howard Baker and Mark Hatfield, both of whom exemplified stunning political courage. And, of course, any list of Agreats must include our beloved Ted Kennedy, who went from being an adversary to my dearest friend. It has been an honor to have served with these Senators, and so many others who contribute to making the Senate the great institution that it is. I hope and I pray that in my 50 years here, I have also made a positive contribution and that I will continue to do so.”

“Because of the good people of West Virginia, my half century of service in this chamber has allowed the foster son of an impoverished coal miner from the hills of southern West Virginia, to have the opportunity to walk with Kings, meet with Prime Ministers, and debate with Presidents. And I have had the privilege not only to witness, but also to participate in much history. From the apex of the Cold War to the collapse of the Soviet Union, from my opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act to my role in securing the funds for the building of the memorial to Martin Luther King, from my support for the War in Vietnam to my opposition to Mr. Bush=s War with Iraq, I have served here and I have loved every minute of it.”

“My half century of service in the U.S. Senate has also allowed me to experience profound changes in this institution, and, unfortunately, not all of them have been for the best. During my tenure, especially in recent years, this chamber has become bitterly partisan. All of us already know this, so I will not belabor the point other than to say that we should do better. But I will point out that we must do something about the vitriol before it destroys the Senate and the people=s faith in us.”

“If anyone thinks that I am exaggerating, I=ll give you just one example. The filibuster is a prime guarantee of the principle of minority rights in the Senate. It is a device by which a single Senator can bring the U.S. Senate to a halt if that Senator believes his cause is just. But our partisan warfare has often transformed this unique, fundamental Senate tool into a political weapon which has been abused. As a result, there have lately been efforts to abolish it. If this should ever happen, a vital and historic protection of the people=s liberties will be lost, and the Senate will cease to function as the one institution that has provided protection for the views and prerogatives of a minority.”

“I lament the ever increasing costs of running for a Senate seat. In 1958, Jennings Randolph and I spent a combined $50,000 to win the two Senate seats in West Virginia. Today, Senators can expect to spend about $7 million. Too much of a lawmaker’s time and energy are now consumed in raising money for the next election.”

“I lament that too many legislators in both parties continue to regard the chief executive in a role much more elevated than the framers of the Constitution ever intended. The framers did not envision the office of president as having the attributes of royalty. We, as legislators, have a responsibility to work with the chief executive, but it was intended for this to be a two-way street. The Senate must again rise up and be the co-equal branch of government which the Constitution intended.”

“I lament the decline of the thoroughness of Senate committee hearings. In his classic study, Congressional Government, Woodrow Wilson pointed out that the Ainforming function of Congress is its most important role. This was revealed in 1973, when, after eight days of hearings, and hours upon hours of questioning, L. Patrick Gray, President Nixon’s nominee to be director of the FBI, revealed that White House Counselor John Dean had lied to FBI investigators, thus beginning the unraveling of the Watergate cover-up. This could not happen today with the time restrictions in Senate hearings.”

“But, I am pleased to say that, during my half century in the Senate, there have also been many positive changes in the Senate. I will only mention a few. First is that the Senate has become more open and more constituent friendly. This was highlighted in 1986, when television cameras were finally installed, and Americans across the country could watch their Senators debate the issues of the day on C-Span. I am proud to have been a part of this innovation.”

“During my tenure here, the Senate has become more open, and it has become more diverse. When I came here in 1959, there was only one female Senator. In the 111th Congress, there are 17 women in the Senate. In the 50 years prior to my service, not a single African American was elected to the Senate. During my 50 years here, three African Americans have been elected to the Senate. I know that this is a small number, but one of those three has now been elected to the highest office in our land, President of the United States. We have come a very long way.”

“Mr. President, let me conclude my remarks by simply acknowledging that it has been a wonderful 50 years serving in this ‘ great forum of constitutional American liberty’ and that I look forward to the next 50!”