The post-Byrd Senate
Robert C. Byrd died last night. The Internet is filling with elegant obituaries, including this package at the Charleston Gazette and Joe Holley's recollection here at The Post. I won't try to match them.
Instead, I want to talk about the Senate that Byrd leaves behind. Byrd was, famously, a master of the body's arcane rules. He wrote a four-volume history of the institution. At a recent lecture on the history of the Senate, the speaker said that there were only ever two people in the room who knew what was going on: The parliamentarian and Robert Byrd.
This was a skill born of necessity. Byrd didn't have the back-slapping bonhomie that sped the rise of most of the body's famed members. "Dour and aloof," writes Holley, "a socially awkward outsider in the clubby confines of the Senate, Mr. Byrd relied not on personality but on dogged attention to detail to succeed on Capitol Hill." That attention to detail eventually got him elected party whip, and then majority leader. Sen. Howard Baker, who led the Republicans when Byrd led the Democrats, once told me that he cut a deal with Byrd on his first day in office. If you never use the rules to surprise me, he told Byrd, I'll never use them to surprise you. Byrd thought it over till the afternoon. Then he agreed.
The deal held. That was the nature of the Senate in Byrd's day: It was thick with rules that could be used to tie the institution in knots, but those rules were governed by norms that were used to keep the institution functioning. It was this tradition that led Byrd to write a letter opposing filibuster reform earlier this year. "If the Senate rules are being abused," he wrote, "it does not necessarily follow that the solution is to change the rules. Senators are obliged to exercise their best judgment when invoking their right to extended debate." In other words, the Senate needed to reestablish its norms, not change its rules.
But the situation is too far gone for all that. The Senate is now a place of blanket holds and routine filibusters and anonymous obstruction and party-line votes. The thing about norms is that once broken, they're generally dead forever. Republicans tell the story of Trent Lott and Orrin Hatch explaining to their colleagues that judicial filibusters simply weren't done, only to see Democrats filibuster Miguel Estrada. Now Republicans filibuster judicial nominees constantly. Conversely, Democrats tell the story of George W. Bush using the budget reconciliation process to pass tax cuts -- the first time the mechanism had ever been used to increase the deficit. That left them cold to Republican cries that the process was limited in design and couldn't be used to finish health-care reform.
In Byrd's day, the Senate had rules, but it functioned because of norms. Today, however, the norms have broken down and it's stopped functioning -- or at least functioning well -- because of rules. Eventually, change to the norms will lead to change in the rules. But we're in the lag time when the Senate hasn't caught up to its own reality yet. You see this in different generations of senators: Many of the freshmen and sophomores want to change the body's rules. Some of the elders, like Byrd, steadfastly resisted such reforms.
Byrd came from a time when mastery of the Senate came from understanding the rules and norms that made the Senate work. The body's next set of legends, however, will be the legislators who reform the rules and set the norms that make the body work again. Byrd wrote volumes one through four of the institution's story, but there are more volumes yet to be written.
Graph credit: Norm Ornstein/The American.
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