Sunday, January 13, 2013

THE END OF JAY, THE END OF AN ERA

It’s a problem as old as elections. Newly chosen representatives ask themselves, “Should my actions be guided by the will of the majority of my constituents or by my own judgment?”

Some resolve to always follow their constituents’ wishes. But eventually, as they are inundated by facts and considerations too arcane or sensitive to enter public discourse, as they confront witheringly complex bills containing multiple provisions some of which are popular and some not, and as they contemplate their duty to represent all of their constituents including those in the minority, representatives eventually find the exercise of personal judgment unavoidable. Initially they may do so in lieu of guidance from their constituents, but inevitably, in some instances, they do so in opposition to it.

That's how it was meant to be. The Constitution places many buffers between the popular will and the enactment of laws. Legislators, especially senators, are encouraged to exercise judgment by provisions that insulate them from the whims of public opinion.

Still, even in a system that encourages legislative independence, the degree to which it was exercised by West Virginia's former senator Robert Byrd and by its current, but soon-to-retire senator, Jay Rockefeller, is remarkable. Equally remarkable is that two men from opposite ends of any economic, social, or cultural scale one can imagine should end so near to one another in how they perceive West Virginia, the nation, and the forces that shape us.

For decades Byrd and Rockefeller were to the left of their electorate on issues ranging from fiscal policy and social issues to the environment and, of course, coal. On issue after issue, had referenda been been held, West Virginia’s voters would have come down on the side opposite that of their senators.

That’s not to say Byrd and Rockefeller always acted in opposition to the preferences of their constituents. But, while they did what they thought best and many West Virginians agreed with them, on some important issues more probably did not.

Still, voters elected and re-elected them -- Byrd nine times and Rockefeller six. But why, when so often they went against our collective wishes?

To say it was “habit” is to duck the question. And, while it’s true that their election opponents were often tomato cans, that too is an evasion. There was something more subtle and important.

Byrd and Rockefeller won elections because, for reasons going back to their origins, they commanded not just our trust, but our deference – our willingness to place greater faith in their judgment than we place in our own.

In Byrd’s case, it’s because he was one of us and his love of West Virginia was palpable. So, we willingly accompanied him in his personal evolution from Dixiecrat segregationist to defender of the Constitution and conscience of the Senate.

Rockefeller on the other hand has never been one of us. How could he be? He came along at a time when Governor Arch Moore, who was one of us, was revealing the ugliness and folly of our tendency to put the state on the block to the highest bidder -- usually the coal industry.

But, it was also a time when we weren’t so cowed by corporate fear-mongering and threats of job loss. So, as Arch Moore slouched from office, doing a few last favors for his cronies before being convicted of extortion, we elected an outsider, Rockefeller, to replace him, in no small part because we had seen where placing trust in the coal industry and its apologists led.

Far from being a “carpetbagger” as some charged, Rockefeller proved to be deeply committed to West Virginia. In contrast to his predecessor, he could be trusted to act in what he believed to be the best interest of West Virginians.

In the senate, Byrd became and Rockefeller always was more liberal than most West Virginians, which caused some to call our willingness to elect and re-elect them an abdication of responsibility by voters. But, it was no more an abdication than when we defer to doctors, financial advisors, and other experts in matters in which we reasonably believe that their choices, while sometimes mysterious to us, are guided by superior knowledge and judgment.

Meanwhile, Byrd and Rockefeller rarely needed or sought constituent approval, which was OK, because they usually chose well. But, it also left a void.

Feeling little need to persuade constituents of the virtues of their policies, Byrd and Rockefeller participated less and less in West Virginia’s political discourse, ceding that role to a succession of governors who have become progressively more conservative, who tied our economic prospects to a fading coal industry that never made West Virginia prosperous, and who, despite all evidence to the contrary, accept at face value the fiction that cutting business taxes and public safety even a the cost of reducing investment in the state and its people will somehow produce economic prosperity. It’s a creed that today few leaders in West Virginia question much less challenge.

So, as Jay Rockefeller’s resignation represents an end to our era of patrician senators, we will, for the first time in generations, be guided by our own lights rather than by theirs. New senators will be chosen based on the degree to which their beliefs coincide with our own. But, what should we believe?

If only as a final act of deference, we should study and contemplate why Senators Byrd and Rockefeller believed differently than we do on so many issues, including economic policy, coal, and healthcare, and only then decide which set of beliefs would best serve West Virginia and the nation and should be our standard when considering who we want to represent us and how.

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