WASHINGTON – Senator Jim Jeffords' defection from the GOP has had significant consequences for the American political landscape. One of the most significant changes may be the shift of control of the Senate Appropriations Committee to West Virginia's Senior Democratic Senator, Robert Byrd.
This development gives Byrd — recently dubbed the “king of pork” by a government spending watchdog group — further power to craft the federal budget every year and help himself, and other senators, deliver billions of dollars of federal bacon to their constituents.
'Slap My Wife'
Each year, Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), a non-partisan research group, releases its so-called “Pig Book,” identifying what it describes as federal pork and wasteful spending. The group says West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd (D) is “the largest porker in history.”
The group estimates that Byrd, who has served on the Appropriations Committee for 40 years, today brings home $128 worth of pork per constituent in West Virginia. This compares favorably with his neighbors: residents of Maryland receive less than $17 per person in spending and Virginia residents receive $27 per person.
“He enjoys every minute of taking our money and stuffing it back in West Virginia,” said CAGW President Thomas Schatz.
But Byrd has never been bothered by such criticism. Instead, he wears it as a badge of honor. "He has more than two dozen facilities, roads, bridges schools, awards named after him," Schatz noted. "He once said, 'you may as well slap my wife as to take highway funds from West Virginia.'"
'I'd Do Exactly What He Does'
His tactics have helped his popularity in the Mountaineer State: the only person in American history to be elected to eight Senate terms, Byrd was returned to Capitol Hill with 78% of the vote last November.
He has earned the favor of his fellow West Virginians recently by helping West Virginia University to more than $8 million in federal grants, delivering West Virginia a $20 million NASA Institute for Software Research, and acquiring $400,000 for a new wing of the Shepherds College library.
For family reasons Byrd was unavailable for an interview, but several of Byrd's supporters and friends say he is just doing his job.
“If you are on the Appropriations Committee, which I was for 22 years," said former Arkansas Sen. Dale Bumpers, "and you don’t take advantage of it, quite frankly you don’t deserve to be re-elected.”
But Schatz and others suggest a more equitable distribution of funds is in order.
"All the money that goes to West Virginia is taking money away from somewhere else around the country," Schatz said. "And at the level that Sen. Byrd takes it in, it really detracts from competitive projects in places where there are as many needs if not more, and the money just goes in without anyone else getting consideration."
Bumpers defends his old pal. "If I were in Robert Byrd's position, I do exactly what he does. I'd try to take care of my constituents."
Byrd's procurement efforts may be more difficult in the future, however. The new Bush tax rate reductions, which began taking effect this week, could place constraints on congressional spending.
This was not lost on Byrd during final debate on the measure as he said "those who vote for this [tax cut] are going to make it impossible for me and the Appropriations Committee members to help you — hear me?"
Fox News' Kelley O. Beaucar contributed to this report