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Robert Byrd's record

PH2009111800253.jpgRobert Byrd Jr. is celebrating a milestone today: The 91-year-old West Virginian is officially the longest-serving member of Congress, having cast more than 18,000 votes and served for more than 20,000 days. Congratulations?

This will reveal me as something of a skunk, but these records are bad things, not good ones. Byrd has spent the past year too sick to reliably carry out his day-to-day duties. It's routinely mentioned that Democrats can't count on 60 votes because they don't know whether Byrd will be able to cast his vote. Similarly long-serving public figures such as Strom Thurmond and Thurgood Marshall spent their final years virtually incapacitated, totally reliant on staff.

There's a tendency in Washington to celebrate extremely long careers despite the fact that the extra length often extends the career beyond the point of useful service. People are honored for sticking around, when the courageous and hard thing would be to cede their seat or position. The celebration and historical permanence given to these sorts of records is part of why they do it. Byrd has accomplished much in his career, and there's plenty in his service worth honoring (his eloquent opposition to the Iraq war, for instance, but this isn't a record I'm eager to see others emulate.

Photo credit: Susan Walsh - AP.

By Ezra Klein  |  November 18, 2009; 11:54 AM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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I agree with you. While I admire Byrd's service and willingness to admit to being wrong years ago, it would be the more courageous thing to do to resign and let someone take his place. I felt the same about Ted Kennedy after he got sick and couldn't come to vote.

Posted by: atlliberal | November 18, 2009 12:00 PM | Report abuse

Most of Congress is totally reliant on staff and they aren't sick and infirm. This is an argument for voting by proxy and eliminating the filibuster, not shorter careers.

Posted by: jamusco | November 18, 2009 12:10 PM | Report abuse

Your'e not a skunk. The unwillingness of these old coots (I get to say that, since I am one) to get off the stage is a major impediment to progress on many issues. There is rarely a day when I don't see a member of Congress holding forth on some subject and think 'early stage Alzheimer's.' After a certain point, the value of experience is negated by the inflexibility and inability to deal with new information and changing situations that usually comes with aging.

Posted by: exgovgirl | November 18, 2009 12:13 PM | Report abuse

I wonder if you will think this way when you are 91. As was said in a different context, this is the least of Harry Reid's problems.

Posted by: CarlFP | November 18, 2009 12:22 PM | Report abuse

i agree with you, but the day of his milestones is not the time to bring attention to this.

Posted by: davitivan | November 18, 2009 12:27 PM | Report abuse

Maybe I'm not thinking straight, but in the last sentence:

(his eloquent opposition to the Iraq war, for instance, but this isn't a record I'm eager to see others emulate.

Where's the closing parenthesis?

Posted by: bstephe | November 18, 2009 12:38 PM | Report abuse

I think Ezra you are right about this one. I was thinking about this one Sen. Byrd and how his potential 'absence' was giving fits to Sen. Reid in getting this important HCR policy even tabled on the floor. (Whether I agree with the bill is not the issue, but it is an important piece for which there needs to be up or down vote is very clear. It is needed so as to vindicate our Political Process.)

My interest is how electorates of West Virginia continue to think that having this old person there, with in all probability inability to make any sound judgments necessary for the basic execution of the duty, serves them well. How the broken Political Party structure in this country puts total premium on winning a seat instead of doing it in right way; by putting a younger candidate in West Virginia.

Indeed quite sad and disgusting affair. Something is always rotten in that Chamber...

Posted by: umesh409 | November 18, 2009 12:42 PM | Report abuse

On the other hand I doubt Senator Byrd has his "revised and expanded remarks" drafted by lobbyists from Genentech. There are plenty of Senator's and Congressmen whose physical and mental abilities only fit them for hikes along the Appalachian Trail. Where hopefully they don't need direct staff assistance.

Though I agree that it is past time for Senator Byrd to have retired and be enjoying the six million buildings and highways named for him in West Virginia, even at his most doddering he is probably contributing more mental firepower than any ten random members of the Republican Caucus.

Posted by: BruceWebb | November 18, 2009 12:57 PM | Report abuse

As a West Virginia, I'm very proud of Senator Byrd. He has become such an icon that he has been able to funnel millions to WV, something a freshman senator would never be able to do. Senator Byrd may seem slow, out of date and off-kilter, but if you look back at recent decisions he has shown himself to be in the right (i.e. Iraq war). Though I don't like all of his decisions and the methods used to get the money (pork barrel), he has been very effective in providing for WV.

What concerns me is whoever would replace him. Gov. Manchin seems to be wanting to fill that seat, and considering how well connected he is it would be difficult for anyone to overtake him. Yet this is the same man who recently said that the US EPA had no jurisdiction in WV. Manchin is so corrupted by the coal companies that he has become known as "King Joe." Here's hoping Sen. Byrd last another 20,000 days.

Posted by: mskidz | November 18, 2009 1:43 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, you've previously said that Congresspeople and Senators shouldn't have to read bills, because they can rely completely on their staffs. Now you say relying on the staff is a bad thing.

Posted by: tomtildrum | November 18, 2009 2:23 PM | Report abuse

You're not a skunk, you make a good point. What astonishes me is the arcane voting system. Because Max Baucus has a family emergency, he could (looks like he won't) miss a vote on a bill he's deeply involved in? I'm just a schmo, but I can vote by mail when I'm out of town and I care enough!

Posted by: qalice1 | November 18, 2009 4:09 PM | Report abuse

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