With his hands shak-ing so from anger that he could barely put his glasses in their case, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., gave his fellow senators a verbal spanking.
The Senate had wrangled late into the night over the budget. Byrd then took the podium and summed up the disgust of the American people. The Senate, he said, "has lost its soul."Often, when Byrd takes the floor, the Senate staffers settle in for what some of them call Byrd's "history lessons." But that wasn't the case the other day. The 72-year-old senator with 32 years on the job was fed up. He had seen infighting and selfishness sink one too many initiatives. This time it was the budget bill for operating the legislative branch. Byrd was thinking about the eight times he has tried to get his colleagues to pass a campaign reform bill and the eight times that bill has gone down the drain. He wished aloud that there was some way the Senate could "appropriate spine."
For 12 years, Byrd was the Senate majority leader - a job that he gave up in 1988 because his critics said he was too stuffy for the 1990s, too stiff for the TV cameras and not dynamic enough to control the political machine that drives the Senate. But this time, the stiff, formal, understated Byrd had been driven over the edge. His usually perfect hair showed his agitation. Byrd loves the Senate, and he has always expected more of it than it could give. In that, he is not unlike the majority of Americans. They expect their elected representatives to represent them. They don't expect senators and representatives to get so hogtied by special interests and so mesmerized by campaigning that they render government almost dysfunctional.
When the budget process is finally behind them, members of Congress will publicly congratulate each other for being so cooperative. They will pat themselves on the back for being able to put their heads together and solve a knotty problem. They will get themselves re-elected on Tuesday, and then they will go back to business-as-usual. For all his indignation, Byrd has conducted plenty of that business-as-usual himself. He once filibustered for 14 hours to tie up the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He used his chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee to bring as many goodies as he could get to West Virginia. And he has stepped on many a clean-air bill when he felt it might crimp the style of West Virginia coal mines.
But the other day Byrd spoke for the American people, not just the ones who elected him. The budget process has left Americans with their mouths agape at just how far their democracy has fallen.