Many of the stories published today about Senator Byrd will highlight his mastery of the Senate rules. I was a small part of one such example. As a staffer to Senator Jeff Bingaman in the late 1980’s I helped draft part of what became the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988. Part of the bill created the Competitiveness Policy Council — an institution that help formulate policy recommendations during the 1990s and is sadly no longer with us. During the Senate floor debate, opponents of this provision moved to eliminate it from the bill. Senator Byrd, in his role as Majority Leader, pointed out that the provision had already been subject to an amendment (in order to amend some other part of the bill, the provision was deleted and reinserted) — and therefore was not subject to further amendment. When the Senator who offered the motion to delete complained, Senator Byrd told him that you need to understand the rules and suggested that he go work out the issue with my boss, Senator Bingaman, who was the sponsor of the provision in question. “I’m just trying to help you out” was Senator Byrd’s words to his colleague. Needless to say, we worked out the issue, the provision stayed in the bill (even through it was named in President Reagan’s original veto of the bill) and the CPC went on to produce some important reports.
Senator Byrd understood the Senate and its ways better than anyone. And he used that knowledge to his advantage. He understood the use of both knowledge and power. He also understood the need to work things out. The Senate is a very different place than when Robert Byrd entered it. One can argue whether the changes have been good or bad (probably some of both). But no one can argue that an era has ended.