Sen. Robert Byrd, Defender and Prolific Sponsor of Academic Earmarks, Dies at 92

June 28, 2010

Robert C. Byrd, a U.S. senator from West Virginia and self-taught scholar of the U.S. Constitution who was a champion of earmarks for colleges and other recipients, died early Monday of an unspecified illness. He was 92.

Mr. Byrd, a Democrat and the longest-serving member of the Senate, was valedictorian of his high-school class but lacked the money to go to college. (See a lengthy obituary in The Washington Post.) He earned a law degree while in Congress by attending night classes at American University, and he later created the Robert C. Byrd Honors Scholarship Program to help high-achieving students afford a college education.

But Mr. Byrd was best known for his dexterity in steering hundreds of millions of dollars in Congressional earmarks to his home state through his many years as the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee. West Virginia colleges were among the beneficiaries of Mr. Byrd, who was a passionate defender of what critics called the pork-barrel process but what he praised as a constitutional assertion of the power of the purse.

"Earmarks are arguably the most criticized and the least understood of Congressional practices," he said in a speech on the Senate floor in 2007, declaring that the critics "are treading some dangerous constitutional grounds with this bombast against earmarks."

"So hear me—hear me, everyone, East, West, South, and North—when I say there is nothing inherently wrong with an earmark," he went on, in his inimitably colorful style, citing The Federalist Papers and Article I of the Constitution. "We, the people's representatives, are armed by the Constitution with the power of the purse to ensure that the federal government is responsive to their—the people's—needs."

Spending decisions reached not by Congressional directive but by a competitive process, such as peer review, managed by the executive branch would be made by "unaccountable bureaucrats" and "so-called 'experts' at bureaucratic agencies," he said.

Senator Byrd's strongest legacy to students may be the creation of the annual Constitution Day and Citizenship Day, in 2004. Mr. Byrd—who habitually carried a copy of the Constitution in an inside breast pocket of his suit and was known to flourish it during heated debates on the Senate floor—slipped a mandate into a spending bill requiring any educational institution that receives federal funds to hold a program about the Constitution every September 17. The Constitution Day requirement persists to this day.