Vast cost of survival in the economic backwater of the US
West Virginia is one of the poorest states in the US, and pays a high price for its pragmatism
Robert Byrd of West Virginia was the longest-serving member of Congress, and one of the most munificent in diverting funds to his home state
In downtown Charleston, West Virginia’s state capital, there is a colossal building that Pierre L’Enfant himself would have been proud to see on one of the vast avenues he designed in Washington DC.
The Robert C Byrd Federal Courthouse stands high among the run-down office blocks like a monolith that has landed from space. The building is conspicuous in a city ranked as one of America’s grimmest. Charleston came last in Gallup’s annual poll of wellbeing in American cities in 2013.
In a way the building was a gift from the heavens – bequeathed from the Congressional orbit of one of America’s most fascinating politicians, the late Robert C Byrd. A conservative Democrat, Byrd was the longest-serving member of Congress in history. He served in the House of Representatives from 1953 to 1959 before being elected an unprecedented nine times to the US Senate. He died in 2010.
Byrd’s astonishing re-election record has more to do with the munificence he showed to his home state than any legislative cunning he displayed on Capitol Hill. As chairman of the powerful Senate appropriations committee, which finds homes for hundreds of billions of federal dollars, Byrd set records for nurturing the interests of the Mountain State from the halls of Washington DC.
Unsurprisingly remembered with affection by West Virginians, Byrd’s name adorns medical centres, roads, bridges and even a telescope. The area around the Robert C Byrd Green Bank Telescope in eastern West Virginia is said to be one of the quietest places in the US as mobile phones and wireless internet are banned to allow the world’s largest steerable radio telescope to do its work in peace.
Byrd is estimated to have allocated more than $1 billion in federal funding to West Virginia, earning him the nickname “the Prince of Pork” after the term “pork-barrel spending”. The phrase apparently originates from a 1863 short story written by American author Edward Everett Hale who used the term as a metaphor for siphoning off community funds for the benefit of a handful. Pork-barrel spending may be a symptom of weak national governance but bringing home the bacon creates an appetite to pass legislation back in Washington. In a rare moment of bipartisanship, Congress last month passed a $1.1 trillion federal budget for the first time in two years.
Buried in the 1,582-page bill were specific allocations of government funding to particular states, allowing, for example, Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington, to take credit for new military aircraft being built by Boeing in the Pacific Northwest and Californian Democrats in the House of Representatives to boast about the expanded border crossing with Mexico near San Diego.
The fresh splurge in back- yard spending acknowledges the sad reality that to get to achieve major legislative victories in a deeply partisan Congress you have to wet the beak of individual lawmakers.
Byrd and his pork-barrel spending represented successful realpolitik in American governance. His politics evolved as the changing political environment around him changed. As a young man, he was an “exalted Cyclops” Ku Klux Klan member, yet just days before his death he supported a repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy for gays in the military to prevent discrimination.
The more practical policy goals set out by President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech on Tuesday marked his own acknowledgement that hope, the occasionally valuable political commodity that inspired his election to the White House, only goes so far in power. The politics of getting things done is ugly and doesn’t lend itself to sweeping speeches, even by a skilled orator.
West Virginia’s high poverty rates have, however, created a skewed pragmatism among the people of this state. Some of the statistics are shocking. For example, the life expectancy for a man in McDowell County, one of the most impoverished counties in West Virginia and the wider United States, is 64.
With such abject poverty, the damage caused by the coal and chemical industries to the environment, including last month’s pollution of the Elk river by coal-processing chemicals affecting the drinking water of more than 300,000 people, has been accepted by some as a byproduct of sustaining employment in an economic backwater. Restaurants adapt and post signs to attract customers such as one outside Tudor’s Biscuit World, saying: “We have bottled water.”
A thirtysomething local in a Charleston bar told me that he was born and raised in “Chemical Valley” and impassively admitted that his health is likely to have been affected by the polluted environment around him but this was the way it was. It’s all about “balance”, he said.
It’s hard to see the balance in “mountain-topping,” between the removal of mountain summits for coalmining to retain jobs and turning beautiful ridges in Appalachia into vast moonscapes. Pragmatism is one thing but in West Virginia this is uglier. Employment and survival comes at a vast and irreversible cost in one of America’s poorest states.