The authors of a popular college text I assign on the U.S. Congress open their first chapter with a question. They ask whether the Congress is a legislative body, responsible for setting national policy, or a conclave of regional ambassadors, seeking to obtain as much of the national largess for their regions as possible.
Most members of Congress fall on a continuum between these two extremes. We do not have to await history’s verdict to decide where to place the late Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens. “He was a guiding light through statehood and the development of the 49th state,” his family has said of him. No one quarrels with that assessment—especially with the “development” part.
He was also much else. To those of us who make our homes outside of Alaska and who sent to Washington in the form of taxes most of the money Stevens steered to his state, he was the personification of arrogance, a bully, a walking argument for term and even age limits, and a reason for the decline in civility in a town that claims to bemoan its passing. He also displayed the sense of entitlement that sets in when the powerful use their tools of incumbency to render themselves impervious to the kind of checks that hold ordinary mortals in line.
Like the late Sen. Robert Byrd, who he so resembled, Stevens would have his constituents believe that all the funds he spread around his state came as manna from Heaven. The term, “other people’s money” never made its way into his oratorical outbursts (No one would refer to them as “speeches”). Byrd and Stevens saw their role as senators to acquire as much power over the appropriations process as they could and to use it to commandeer every federal dime they could to their home states.
In 90 years—the combined length of their collective service (Byrd's 50 and Stevens's 40)—no set of bank robbers, highway bandits, or embezzlers made off with more of other people’s money than did these two. “And they did it all legally,” went the running joke around Washington, spread largely by other senators, envious of their techniques and eager to emulate their ways. Should one of Byrd's of Stevens’s colleagues, anxious about the needs of their own constituents, dare question the rotating chairmen’s priorities, let alone their imperious use of the gavel, they were intimidated into silence and later made to express their gratitude for whatever crumbs fell their way at the behest of the chair.
Usually, and especially in public, the courtly Byrd tried to be nice about it. Few used words such as “courtly” or “nice” when describing Stevens. With pride, he referred to himself as a “mean, miserable S.O.B.” When a colleague sought to use $452 million in funds Stevens had set aside for Alaska projects (“bridges to nowhere”) on behalf of a region laid low by Hurricane Katrina, Stevens barked, “If you want a wounded bull on the floor of the Senate, pass this amendment.” That he prevailed 85 to 15 was hardly a shining moment in the history of the place.
To those who voiced objections to his efforts to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Stevens said, “People who vote against this today are voting against me. I will not forget it.” In Stevens’s mind, what was about Alaska was always about him. It was this that begot the arrogance.
His fall from grace began when, after spending his entire career on the public payroll, the “emperor of Alaska” allegedly decided that he had earned the right to live as well as some of the people he helped enrich through the billions of dollars in federal expenditures he brought home. Days before he lost his bid for a seventh term, a jury found Stevens guilty of having accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in improper gifts. After the verdict was subsequently tossed out on a technicality, Stevens said that his “faith [in the justice system] has been restored.”
Stevens’s career, like Byrd’s, did little to restore our faith in the institution he, Byrd, and the rest of their ilk had so debased. A growing number of people from all sides of the political spectrum are openly questioning the need for a chamber that once saw itself as the world’s greatest deliberative body. And their criticisms extend far beyond the ageless debate over the appropriateness of the filibuster. The time may be at hand when increased voters’ anger will lead to more than the mere tossing out of incumbents, but to serious institutional and systematic reforms. Should they come, these, rather than the projects named for them in their home states, may be Byrd's and Stevens’s ultimate legacies. Now that could be something in their records the rest of us could single out for praise.