• September 4, 2015

Sen. Robert Byrd, Defender and Prolific Sponsor of Academic Earmarks, Dies at 92

Robert C. Byrd, a U.S. senator from West Virginia and self-taught scholar of the U.S. Constitution who was a champion of earmarks for colleges and other recipients, died early Monday of an unspecified illness. He was 92.

Mr. Byrd, a Democrat and the longest-serving member of the Senate, was valedictorian of his high-school class but lacked the money to go to college. (See a lengthy obituary in The Washington Post.) He earned a law degree while in Congress by attending night classes at American University, and he later created the Robert C. Byrd Honors Scholarship Program to help high-achieving students afford a college education.

But Mr. Byrd was best known for his dexterity in steering hundreds of millions of dollars in Congressional earmarks to his home state through his many years as the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee. West Virginia colleges were among the beneficiaries of Mr. Byrd, who was a passionate defender of what critics called the pork-barrel process but what he praised as a constitutional assertion of the power of the purse.

"Earmarks are arguably the most criticized and the least understood of Congressional practices," he said in a speech on the Senate floor in 2007, declaring that the critics "are treading some dangerous constitutional grounds with this bombast against earmarks."

"So hear me—hear me, everyone, East, West, South, and North—when I say there is nothing inherently wrong with an earmark," he went on, in his inimitably colorful style, citing The Federalist Papers and Article I of the Constitution. "We, the people's representatives, are armed by the Constitution with the power of the purse to ensure that the federal government is responsive to their—the people's—needs."

Spending decisions reached not by Congressional directive but by a competitive process, such as peer review, managed by the executive branch would be made by "unaccountable bureaucrats" and "so-called 'experts' at bureaucratic agencies," he said.

Senator Byrd's strongest legacy to students may be the creation of the annual Constitution Day and Citizenship Day, in 2004. Mr. Byrd—who habitually carried a copy of the Constitution in an inside breast pocket of his suit and was known to flourish it during heated debates on the Senate floor—slipped a mandate into a spending bill requiring any educational institution that receives federal funds to hold a program about the Constitution every September 17. The Constitution Day requirement persists to this day.


1. bstevens - June 28, 2010 at 10:04 am

West Virginia and the world will miss Senator Byrd!

2. rightwingprofessor - June 28, 2010 at 11:15 am

No obituary of senator byrd is complete without mentioning his long service as a leader in the Ku Klux Klan.

3. jsch0602 - June 28, 2010 at 01:27 pm

But Mr. Byrd was best known for his dexterity in steering hundreds of millions of dollars in Congressional earmarks to his home state.
I know him best as a Klansman and segregationist.

4. crankycat - June 28, 2010 at 04:02 pm

There are few who can match the vigor and tenacity with which he defended the Constitution, or pursued the betterment of his home state. He will be missed.

5. rebek56 - June 28, 2010 at 04:21 pm

Please note that by the end of his career, Senator Byrd was earning 100% ratings from the NAACP.

6. swish - June 28, 2010 at 05:21 pm

Maybe so, but he was still introducing resolutions and Constitutional amendments, as he had done over and over for years, to allow voluntary, student-initiated prayer in public schools, even though that is already allowed. Maybe he was trying to earn votes from the ignorant, but he certainly did nothing to educate them about their first amendment rights in this area.

7. rpm13 - June 28, 2010 at 05:44 pm

With all due condolences to his family and friends, it should be noted that higher education's particular beef against Senator Byrd ought to be his anti-intellectual attacks on research funded by NSF. Together with his support for earmarks, in effect what he tried to do was to substitute political whim for peer review.

8. mariemrafa - June 28, 2010 at 06:54 pm

Say what you want about the man, but you must understand no one on this earth has a squeaky clean background. He lived through nine different decades of change and history. I bet if you looked deep into your ancestors or living relatives of his age, you might be surprised what you find. What is the most important thing to take from this man's life and recent death, is you can change for the better. He has invested his life into helping West Virginians. His legacy will live on through his Constitution Day and the many facilities and schools he helped fund such as the Robert C. Byrd School of Pharmacy in Charleston, WV and other buildings found on the campuses of Wheeling Jesuit Univeristy, Shepherd University, Marshall University, and West Virginia University. He has roads, freeways, and bridges named after him all over my great state. He will not be forgotten, but he will be missed for the great things he did for my state. Just remember what you want people to focus on when you die... the good things you accomplished? The change in your life? Or the bad things such as involvement in KKK which was decades ago? Focus on the positives in someone else's life so people will focus on the positives in yours when your time is up.

9. teddypipcatz - June 28, 2010 at 08:37 pm

Good for you, mariemrafa! It is so easy to forget the good, and magnify the bad.
Rightwingprofessor, check your facts before you post - Mr.Byrd freely admitted that joining the KKK was a mistake of his youth, and one that he sought to rectify through the long history of his public service. He was never a "leader" of the KKK locally or nationally, merely a member during the depression, as a young man in his 20's.
Mr. Byrd also was up front about the concept of "pork-barreling" federal funds for the people of West Virginia. We were lucky to have him looking out for his constituents, as public servants are supposed to do.
Could we just possibly let 24 hours since his death go by before folks start vilifying him?

10. fergbutt - June 28, 2010 at 09:14 pm

Mariemrafa, if his involvement as a racist was "decades ago" then why did Byrd get in hot water for using the phrase "white niggers" in 2001, less than a decade ago? The NAACP turns a blind eye to a former racist who pretends to be progressive and denigrates the Republican Party, without which the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would have never happened because Byrd in Virginia and Al Gore's father in Tennessee and Bill Clinton's mentor in Arkansas were fighting its passage.

11. physicsprof - June 29, 2010 at 12:14 am

So Sen. Byrd sat with some Klansmen around campfire during his 20s, while President Obama sat with Bill Ayers on some committees during his 30s-40s. There is no evidence Byrd's KKK campfire friends committed any crimes. There is evidence Ayers did. Byrd denounced KKK involvement, Obama never apologized for his connection.

12. swish - June 29, 2010 at 11:26 am

Byrd was IN the Klan. Obama was never *in* the Weather Underground. Obama's "connection" is nothing requiring an apology.

13. mariemrafa - June 29, 2010 at 01:54 pm

Fergbutt. A man's family and state are in mourning. I'm not saying he was right in saying that or that it was appropriate for you to repeat it on this forum, but this is not the time to be throwing dirt over his name and reputation when people all over my state are mourning this great loss of life. Go pick on someone living.

14. jimhenry888 - June 29, 2010 at 03:14 pm

And lest we forget his staunch opposition to the illegal invasion of Iraq when so few were brave enough or reflective enough to do so, see the good slideshow of his legacy at The Nation:


15. 11319762 - June 29, 2010 at 06:55 pm

Teddypipcatz, as to fact checking: he was not the passive member that you put forth but rather an active and outspoken leader within the KKK. According to Senator Byrd himself, he rose to the rank of Kleegle in the KKK, the title given the principal recruiter for his region. He stated in an interview that praise for his organizing efforts as Kleegle is what first prompted him to give thought to the idea of running for elected office.

He is certainly a unique personality in American political history. Given all that he was involved in during his life, for The Chonicle to describe his senatorial life as "champion of the earmark" seems rather highly redactive, by whatever standards you choose for measurement.

16. swish - July 02, 2010 at 09:59 am

Well, Jim Henry, I did forget. Thanks. This really is a tale of two (or more) Senators in one.

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