. . . He is one of the last of the 'old bulls' who controlled congressional purse strings when the Senate was a true gentlemen's club, and his top priority hasn't changed in a half-century: shoveling pork into his home state.
Is that so terrible? Byrd once promised to be 'West Virginia's billion-dollar industry,' and he has more than kept his word, dotting his state with the Robert C. Byrd Bridge, the Robert C. Byrd High School and the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies, where academics can research how Congress came to give West Virginia six technology centers, two community centers and about two dozen additional projects named for Robert C. Byrd. One man's pork is another man's 'domestic infrastructure,' and Byrd savors his reputation as the King of Pork. His memoir details hundreds of his earmarks in loving detail, along with gleeful tales of moving Navy and Coast Guard offices to his landlocked state. Appropriately, he moved the Bureau of the Public Debt to West Virginia, too.
This is why Byrd was named "West Virginian of the 20th Century," and is revered as the savior of an impoverished state. But even after Byrd's half-century of largesse -- new prisons, new labs, new subsidies for fish farms, dairies and steelmakers -- West Virginia is still an impoverished state, ranked 49th in per-capita gross state product. "Those earmarks haven't solved West Virginia's problems," says Michael Hicks, an economist at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va. "I'm trying to be careful here -- I like my job -- but after 40-odd years, we're still at the bottom of every economic indicator." Byrd was ahead of the curve on welfare reform, complaining as early as 1965 that "relief has become a way of life for some people." But he never noticed that relief could become a way of life for his state. West Virginia is now a ward of the federal government, dependent on Robert C. Byrd.
Lately it seems our Congressional leaders have been wont to hide their earmarks from public view. Perhaps Senator Byrd does so these days as well. But, with his practice of having his name put highways, bridges, high schools, research centers, technology centers, and community centers (is that all?), at least Senator Byrd doesn't seem to hide his love of pork projects for home.
Perhaps pork is just what legislatures do best, eh?