June 29, 2010 -- Sen. Robert Byrd was many things during his more than 50 years in the Senate: orator, fiddler, lecturer and author of a multi-volume history of the Senate. But it is his role as an appropriator that leaves his name emblazoned across West Virginia -- on highways, schools, even the world's largest radio telescope.
If something was built with federal dollars in the state of West Virginia in the last half century, there is a good chance that Byrd helped get the funding -- more than $3.3 billion over his career. And that is only what such watchdogs as the Citizens Against Government Waste can attribute to him. Recent years have seen disclosure requirements for pet projects that were unheard of when Byrd became a senator in 1959.
For the current fiscal year, Byrd had more earmarks worth more money than any other lawmaker: 89 earmarks for more than $250 million.
Getting money for his home state was a legacy of which Byrd was proud. A great defender of the separation of powers, he carried a copy of the Constitution, available at the Senate gift shop for a quarter, in his pocket at all times and would wield it in arguments in which he defended Congress as the rightful holder of the nation's purse strings. A list of projects named for Byrd is listed on a website associated with a 2005 documentary about him called "The Soul of the Senate," with which he cooperated.
But with the national debt soaring past $13 trillion and deficits projected for years to come, government spending is near the top of voters' worries.
With Byrd's passing, along with the exit from Congress of some other notable earmarkers, the era of pork barrel politics could be coming to an end. The old Washington saw is that there are really three parties in American politics: Democrats, Republicans and Appropriators. But some of the oldest hands at the appropriating game are leaving Capitol Hill.
Rep. David Obey, the Wisconsin Democrat and current chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, announced his retirement earlier this year. Rep. Jack Murtha, who was chairman of the powerful subcommittee in charge of defense spending, died in February. Sen. Ted Stevens, the Republican famous for his defense of such projects as the Bridge to Nowhere was defeated under an ethical cloud in 2008.
New Disclosure Rules Could Spell the End to Old-School Earmarking
Obey has used his position to help funnel more than $300 million in federal dollars toward his district during the past three years. The Republican running to take Obey's seat said he would foreswear earmarks altogether.
"The biggest factor is, the mood of the country has changed," said Tom Schatz, director of the spending watchdog Citizens Against Government Waste, which tracks federal dollars. "There's a lot more awareness about the consequences of earmarking, how it is being used to re-elect members of Congress."
Schatz, whose group once gave Byrd its ironically named lifetime achievement award for wasteful spending points to new disclosure rules that have forced lawmakers to declare online what money they are attempting to earmark for their districts as part of the growing public awareness about Washington spending.
"Expenditures that once seemed helpful and were considered to be deserved are now viewed with more disdain," he said.
Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, who used his seat on the Senate Appropriations committee to argue for re-election to a fourth term, was defeated in the Republican primary. Bennett told ABC's Jonathan Karl in an interview that voters "hated" that he sat on the Appropriations Committee, using it to paint him as a Washington spender, even though many of the projects he supported brought federal dollars to Utah.
"That's what they hated," he said. "It was, 'You are a part of the fiscal problem that we have, if you're spending any money at all.'"
Sen. Byrd Is Gone, but Pork Barrel Politics Likely to Persist in Some Form
When Byrd, then in poor health, relinquished his post as chairman of the Appropriations Committee in 2008, he handed the gavel over to Sen. Daniel Inouye, now the second-longest serving member of the Senate, who had $200 million worth of earmarks for the current fiscal year. The ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee, Sen. Thad Cochran, had more than $100 million.
Republicans will use anti-Washington spending as their main weapon in the upcoming midterm elections. But for all the new disclosure online and voters' anger about the debt, and the death and retirement and political defeat of so many appropriators, many still remain on Capitol Hill and will continue to funnel money to their states and districts.