What's In A Name?

(CBS)
Sharyl Attkisson is investigative correspondent for CBS News.
What's in a name? Billions of dollars. At least when it comes to the name of Sen. Robert C. Byrd.

This November will mark the 50th anniversary of his first election to the Senate, where he's held office longer than anybody else in history. He's spent much of that time as head of the Senate's most powerful spending committee ... with extraordinary control over earmarks. Earmarks are Congressional grants of money without the normal public review.

With that power, Byrd has been able to bring a disproportionately large amount of "earmarked" tax dollars to projects in his home state. Many of them named ... after him. All that money has certainly made his supporters in West Virginia happy, and has helped keep him in office all these years.

Nobody can argue that West Virginia, a historically impoverished state, can't use the financial help. But the controversy over all the money Byrd has brought home falls into several categories, according to critics and watchdogs.

  • "It's not fair." Although West Virginia can use infusion of cash ... so could similarly strapped communities all over the nation. But they don't have a chance at the money because they don't have a member of Congress who sits in powerful spending positions.

  • "Lack of checks and balances." When a member of Congress gives money through an earmark, he's taking federal tax dollars paid by people all over the country, and unilaterally making a decision to fund it to a cause or project of his choosing, without normal checks and balances, audits, or competitive bidding. Nobody can say for sure whether the projects funded through earmarks are given to the most deserving entities, the ones that can do the best job, the ones with the most expertise, or the ones who can stretch the federal dollar the farthest.

  • "Byrd's name is on dozens of the projects." It's generally considered "unseemly" for a sitting member of Congress to fund projects in his own name. Critics see it as politicians funding monuments to themselves. But Byrd has made a cottage industry of it. We counted more than 40 ventures named after him in his home state ... projects he helped pay for with your tax dollars.

  • "West Virginia is still impoverished." In researching Byrd's earmarks, several observers pointed out that despite all the money he's brought home, the plight of West Virginians hasn't, in the end, dramatically improved. The nature of earmarks is that they often benefit a relative few and leave everyone else out in the cold.

    Byrd wouldn't agree to an interview for our report. If he had, he might tell you a few things in his defense. Unlike a lot of members of Congress, he has always been very open about his earmarks. He's proudly disclosed and defended them. Whether he's speaking on the Senate floor or in his home state, he makes no bones about it: he's all about bringing as much cash to West Virginia as he can. And he's much-beloved by many of those who've chosen to keep him in office term after term ... after term.

    Considering Byrd's advanced age (he turned 90 last November) and his reportedly declining mobility and ability, there have been rumblings on Capitol Hill that some Democrats would like to replace him as head of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. Publicly, his colleagues have denied it. And Byrd's staff has said he has every intention of continuing on.

    His time in the Senate is money in the bank for West Virginians. You can bank the Byrd name on that.
    • Sharyl Attkisson On Twitter»

      Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.

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