Robert Byrd, Emperor Palpatine of Pork

The late Senator Robert Byrd's legacy as the master of pork barrel spending is secure.

Nick Gillespie says that we shouldn’t forget Robert Byrd’s negative legacy.  No, not his long-ago membership in the Ku Klux Klan, which is constantly recalled (unfairly, both Gillespie and I agree) but his real life’s work:

But it’s Byrd’s status as the Babe Ruth of pork-barrel spending and taxpayer-funded narcissism that is his real legacy and the one we should never forget or forgive. Here lies a man who pushed his home state to build a statue of him in defiance of a rule that such honorees be dead for 50 years.

Back in 2006, Citizens Against Government Waste called Byrd the “Emperor Palpatine of Pork” and gave him their lifetime achievement award


Characters like Rep. Jack Murtha (D-Penn.), another recently deceased pork-barrel prodigy, and Byrd might have been larger than life but they worked to corrode any integrity voters and critics of government might find in legislators. We’re grown-ups here in America and we’re supposed to be able to take care of ourselves with a minimum of paternalistic help. For the times and places and people who really do need outside help, it fouls the nest when it is administered by folks such as Byrd because it becomes impossible to know if this is a legitimate exercise of state power and assistance or just one more bank job pulled under the cover of often-impenetrable Latinate rhetoric.

In an age of untrammeled government spending and power grabs (an era that started long before the current administration) and with folks like Byrd, Ted Kennedy, and Ted Stevens either dead or otherwise out of office, it’s worth remembering we need less characters in Congress and more character in legislators who go about faithfully executing the duties of a limited-government system.

This is right, of course, except for one thing:  Nobody is glossing over this fact.

In my Byrd obituary roundup yesterday morning, I collected a representative sampling of the headlines and first paragraphs of how his passing was covered by the major press.    In addition to the requisite mention of his status as the longest-serving member of the Senate and of Congress in American history, the two themes repeated over and over were his status as king of pork and his penchant for waxing eloquent on the wonders of the Constitution.

His pork acumen made the lead sentence in his WaPo and NYT obits.   It was much deeper in the WSJ coverage, which was more flowery, but cited as one of the “twin images” of the man.  Ditto Politico, which was the most laudatory, but eventually got around to saying “he is perhaps best known for running the Appropriations Committee, which helped him build a reputation for funneling federal money to projects in his economically depressed home state of West Virginia. Anyone who has driven the scenic byways of West Virginia, visited the state’s national parks or stopped by the federal courthouse in Charleston, W.Va., has borne witness to his power — Byrd’s name is everywhere.”

Similarly, Time allowed that, “If Byrd’s political positions changed over the years, his dedication to lavish government spending never did. As chairman or ranking member of the check-writing appropriations committee from 1989 until 1995, he steered so much pork to West Virginia that by one count there were fully 30 current or pending federal projects bearing his name there. He brought satellite offices of federal agencies like the fbi and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and others to the state. With bridges, tunnels, dams and highways he connected the famously tough-to-navigate terrain. It was his ability to bring federal funds to the state that led to victory margins topping 70% late in his career-when he faced any opposition at all.”

So, no one is forgetting that Byrd was a master at grubbing for pork and slapping his name on every gas station, residence, warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse and doghouse in sight.   Indeed, Byrd was quite proud of this and constantly reminding us.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Michael Reynolds says:

    I agree. The eulogies have been notable for their lack of sentimentality about Byrd. The positives have all been about longevity. The difference in how people expressed themselves about Ted Kennedy have been striking. Kennedy was loved — not least by his colleagues in the Senate. Byrd was clearly not.

  2. James Joyner says:

    I think that’s right. Ted Kennedy had some deep flaws and controversies in his personal life but was universally regarded as a fantastic senator, with even conservative Republican colleagues praising his work ethic and sense of honor in keeping commitments.

  3. Brett says:

    So, no one is forgetting that Byrd was a master at grubbing for pork and slapping his name on every gas station, residence, warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse and doghouse in sight. Indeed, Byrd was quite proud of this and constantly reminding us.

    True. Although I can’t entirely blame him for doing it, since West Virginia is and has always been a very poor state.

  4. Love the “Fugitive” reference at the end.