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.
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.