If Monday’s plane-crash death of former Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens leads to rapturous orations about his career of public service, I’m going to lose my lunch.

I had a similar queasy feeling after laudatory speeches last June at the funeral of Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, Stevens’ Democratic counterpart.

Both were virtuosos of “pork-barrel politics,” the art of securing public spending to benefit a politician’s constituents in exchange for votes and campaign contributions.

To some extent, all members of Congress engage in next-feathering by supporting “ear marks,” public works projects, and spending on defense installations and weapons procurement targeted for their district.  Indeed, it could legitimately be argued that it’s part of their job to make sure their constituents get a fair share of the federal pie.

The problem lies with those, like Stevens and Byrd, who are so parochial and selfish they see pork as the sole reason for serving in Congress.

For more than half a century, Maine has maintained a consistent tradition of electing moderate, responsible, high-minded people to serve in the Senate. Senators Margaret Chase Smith, Edmund Muskie, William Hathaway, William Cohen, George Mitchell, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins have worked, within appropriate bounds, to bring federal dollars to Maine, while, at the same time, spending substantial time and energy working on issues of national legislative importance.

The same cannot be said of Stevens or Byrd, each of whom represented a poor, rural, under-populated state with a profile similar to Maine’s. While they were very different in style — Stevens dour and pugnacious, Byrd cheerful and courtly — they were both on the same page about their goal, to hijack a disproportionate share of treasury funds to their home states.

Stevens, who for 20 years served as either chair or ranking minority member of the influential Senate Appropriations Committee (which oversees discretionary spending legislation), was cited by Citizens Against Government Waste for helping Alaska bring home 1,452 projects between 1995 and 2008, worth a total of $3.4 billion.   During those nine years, the watchdog group ranked Alaska number 1 in pork per capita.

Stevens made no bones about how he saw his role. In his farewell speech in the Senate, he bluntly stated, “My motto has always been ‘to hell with politics, just do what’s right for Alaska.'”

The same watchdog group dubbed Byrd, who chaired the Appropriations Committee for 13 of the 20 years between 1989 and 2009, “porker of the year” in 2002 and credited him with being the first congressional official to obtain more than $1 billion in federal dollars for his state.

Proud of his achievement, Byrd unabashedly declared, during a Senate floor debate in 2001, “One man’s pork is another man’s job. Pork has been good investment in West Virginia. You can look around and see what I’ve done.”  Apparently he didn’t perceive any irony in claiming credit for using national taxpayer dollars to fund “his” investment in West Virginia.

From a cynical point of view, it’s hard to argue with the proposition that pork works. There seems to be a direct relationship between the tenure of a senator and his ability to “bring home the bacon.”  Simply stated, pork buys constituent loyalty.

Byrd was the longest serving senator in the history of the chamber (1959 to 2010), winning re-election later in his career by majorities exceeding 70 percent. During his lifetime, the grateful citizens of West Virginia named more than 30 public works after him and erected a large statue of him in the state Capitol.

Stevens, the longest serving Republican senator (1968 to 2009), was so admired in Alaska, he seemed impervious to scandal. Repeated reports that he had amassed a fortune through sweetheart investments with businessmen for whom he had secured government contracts or benefits failed to make a dent in his electability.

Not until November 2008, just weeks after his federal conviction (later overturned) on violations of the Ethics in Government Act for failing to disclose $250,000 worth of gifts and renovations to his home, did Stevens lose a re-election bid. Even then, his loss was by a razor-thin margin of less than 4,000 votes.

Seniority in Congress, in turn, makes a legislator eligible for influential committee, chairmanship and leadership positions, which he can use to advantage to wring concessions for his home state from other legislators and gain even further political popularity.  It becomes a vicious cycle.

You would think that the Senate would be more insulated from this kind of behavior than the House of Representatives. Alas, it’s not so.

The framers of the Constitution explicitly designed the Senate to be a more deliberative, nationally-oriented body, less susceptible to the shifting winds of public opinion and pressure of local interests, than the House. They did so by making it smaller than the House (currently 100 compared to 435), setting longer terms (six years as opposed to two), staggering terms (one-third of its members coming up for election every two years), and providing that members be elected by state legislatures rather than direct popular vote (a method changed to direct popular ballot by a constitutional amendment in 1913).

Thwarting both the framers’ design and the public trust, senators like Stevens and Byrd have demonstrated how to use pork to turn the Senate into a safe sanctuary from which they can operate to promote local and personal interests with uncommon arrogance.

Elliott L. Epstein, a local attorney, is founder and board president of Museum L-A and an adjunct history instructor at Central Maine Community College. He can be reached at [email protected]


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