Shelby, one of the Senate’s last big spenders, ‘Got Everything’ for Alabama

Late.  Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) in his office on Capitol Hill in Washington on Dec. 13, 2022. (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)

Late. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) in his office on Capitol Hill in Washington on Dec. 13, 2022. (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)

SHELBY POINT, Ala. — For the first time in years, there are signs of dramatic change on the banks of the Mobile River. The waterway is dug wider and deeper day by day. Mobile’s airport is moving in soon. And sitting sentinel from the waterfront is a 3-foot bronze bust of the man who brought home the money to finance it: Sen. Richard C. Shelby.

Determined to tap the potential of Alabama’s only port, Shelby, who has served in Congress for more than four decades, has used his seat on the powerful committee that controls federal spending to bring in more than $1 billion to modernize the city’s port , raising funds for projects including new wharves and better railways. The result is one of the fastest growing ports of its kind, which today contributes to one in seven jobs in the state.

It’s also something of a monument to a declining way of doing business on Capitol Hill, one that has fueled many a bipartisan deal — including the $1.7 trillion spending bill that cleared Congress last week and averted a government shutdown – and whose death has contributed to the dysfunction and paralysis that has gripped Congress in recent years.

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Shelby, who is retiring at 88, is one of the last of the great pork barrel legends who managed to keep money flowing to his state even as anti-spending fervor gripped his party during the rise of the Tea Party and never quite let go .

The Alabama senator didn’t just use his seat on the Appropriations Committee to turn the expanding port into an economic engine. Using his influence, seniority, cunning and deep knowledge of the arcane and secretive congressional spending process, he single-handedly transformed the landscape of his home state by harnessing billions of federal dollars to conjure up the creation and expansion of university buildings and research programs, airports and seaports and military and space facilities.

Shelby honed his tactics at a time when lawmakers across the political spectrum were willing to set aside ideology and unite behind a shared eagerness to grab federal money for their states and districts. It paved the way for passing big spending deals and keeping the government running largely because those lawmakers had a vested interest in securing victories for their constituents.

He unapologetically followed in the footsteps of predecessors known in congressional parlance as “old bull appropriations,” like Republican Ted Stevens of Alaska and Democrats Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia and Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii. They saw their primary task in Congress as directing as much money as they could to their states, which they saw as being neglected in favor of more populous ones with more influence.

“They trained me,” Shelby said.

The ascendant right-wing Republicans who wield the most influence in Congress these days have received a very different workout.

They are lawmakers who reflexively vote against any federal funding measure and view big money spenders like Shelby as establishment men who have been corrupted by the lure of wasteful government spending. And as the party prepares to take over the House majority next week, they have made it clear they will demand deep cuts, potentially leading to the kind of spending freezes that have become common in recent years.

“Other people would say, ‘Oh, don’t do anything for your state, don’t spend money on this.’ I disagree with that,” Shelby said last week, sitting in her Washington office, a few feet from her desk that once belonged to another Southern senator who used his perch in Congress to build his state, Lyndon B. Johnson.

Part of a senator’s job, he argued, is to help build the conditions for his state’s prosperity.

“I’m a pretty conservative guy in a lot of ways,” Shelby said. “But I thought that was the role Congress has played since the Erie Canal.”

As Shelby’s contributions have appeared throughout his home state, so too have monuments in his honor. In addition to the statue at the Port of Mobile, which was unveiled earlier this month, there are no fewer than seven buildings in Alabama named after him — mostly academic buildings, but also a missile intelligence center. An eighth, a federal courthouse, is on the way.

“No one would ever accuse Richard Shelby of being timid or thinking small,” said Jo Bonner, the president of the University of South Alabama and a former five-term Republican congressman. The senator’s ability to “dream big and look years down the road,” he said, made Shelby “the most consistent elected official in Alabama history.”

Bradley Byrne, a former Republican congressman from Mobile, recalled being amazed when he first arrived in Congress at how thoroughly Shelby had stuffed the year-end spending bill.

“Senator, you have a lot of things for Alabama in that bill,” Byrne recalled telling Shelby.

“Bradley,” Shelby replied in his signature baritone drawl, “I got everything.”

Born in Birmingham during the Great Depression, Shelby said he never even met a Republican growing up. A lawyer by profession, he entered politics as a conservative Democrat, first in the Alabama Senate, then as a United States Congressman. By the time Shelby had climbed the seniority ranks in the Senate, becoming chairman of the Appropriations Panel after chairing three others, including the Intelligence Committee, he had switched parties as part of the vanguard of the Southern realignment.

Outside of his push for federal money, Shelby legislated and voted as a conventional conservative when it came to social and economic issues, and his relationship with the Clinton administration soured when, in 1993, he greeted the new president’s economic plan with the memorable phrase: “The tax collector is coming.”

His enthusiasm for ear tags has long attracted critics. Citizens Against Government Waste, a nonpartisan organization that opposes the use of ear tags, once released a report titled “Senator Shelby’s Pork Parade.”

“Sen. Shelby has long used his seniority on the Appropriations Committee to receive far more earmarks than his peers,” including last year, “when he received nearly twice as many dollars in earmarks as the next highest recipient,” said Sean Kennedy, the group’s director. policy and research.

Even as the term “earmark” became a four-letter word in his party in the 2000s, Shelby remained unfazed by the parade of federal funds he steered his state’s way. When local cartoonists published pictures of Shelby depicting him as one of the state’s greatest benefactors, such as one of Shelby carrying a pig in a large sack with a money symbol captioned “Alabama’s Santa Claus,” his wife displayed them in Their home. It was a reminder, Shelby said, “to keep my sense of humor.”

Shelby’s work was about “trying to make sure we got our fair share,” said Sandy Stimpson, mayor of Mobile, where an estimated one in five people live in poverty.

Shelby has funded roads and bridges and hospitals and public libraries and drinking water systems; university research on topics as diverse as disease prevention in local foods such as catfish and oranges, to improved monitoring systems for coastal flooding and hurricanes, to the combustion behavior of liquid oxygen.

For some of his biggest priorities — such as Redstone Arsenal, the military installation near Huntsville that houses the Army’s missile programs, the FBI and the Marshall Space Flight Center — Shelby secured huge infusions of federal funds each year and shoehorned them into bill after bill over decades .

“I thought the best thing I could do with federal money was not pave anybody’s driveway,” Shelby said. What he tried to do instead was “build institutions and then infrastructure that would create more competitive environments in the long term.”

At Redstone Arsenal, he successfully lobbied the Air Force to build the new US Space Command headquarters and pushed the FBI to expand its footprint there, an investment that has now topped $2.48 billion, much of it built from earmarks. And he sent billions of dollars to support research and expand jobs at NASA’s Civilian Research Center for Rocket and Spacecraft Propulsion there.

Sometimes his advocacy came in the form of a few paragraphs. In 2011, as lawmakers rushed to approve a short-term spending bill to ensure the government didn’t shut down, Shelby threw in language blocking NASA from scrapping an attempt to launch rockets with “heavy-lift” capabilities, a move that would have eliminated hundreds of jobs at Redstone Arsenal.

Shelby, partly for personal reasons, has also taken a special interest in Alabama’s universities, which have been some of the biggest beneficiaries of his major. In 1987, during Shelby’s first year in the Senate, his wife, the first woman to become a tenured professor at Georgetown University’s business school, suffered kidney failure from lupus. The family turned to the medical staff at the University of Alabama, Birmingham.

“UAB saved her life,” Shelby says now. “I realized what they had there and could have there.”

Since then, Shelby has secured funding for four academic buildings—all hubs of scientific research and teaching, none smaller than 150,000 square feet, and most built in the Federal style with Doric columns. There is Shelby Hall at the University of Alabama; Shelby Hall at the University of South Alabama; the 12-story, 340,000-square-foot Shelby Biomedical Research Building at the University of Alabama, Birmingham; and the Shelby Center for Science and Technology at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, two-thirds of which was built with federal funds.

In Tuscaloosa, more than $60 million secured by Shelby helped build what became one of the largest academic buildings on the University of Alabama campus, a 200,000-square-foot hall that houses more than 70 research laboratories, three lecture halls and more than 120 offices for faculty and graduate students.

“It allowed us to put students in lab facilities that they wouldn’t have been able to be a part of otherwise,” said Dr. Chuck Karr, the president of the University of Alabama, Huntsville, and a former dean of engineering at the University of Alabama. “It really acted as the catalyst for other growth.”

When local officials unveiled the bust of Shelby at the Port of Mobile earlier this month, they also surprised him by announcing they were privately funding two engineering and computer science scholarships in his name at the University of South Alabama.

Sitting in his office weeks later, he was more interested in talking about the scholarships than the twice life-size bronze structure behind him.

“If you’ve tried to educate everyone in your community — everyone,” Shelby said, “you’re going to create opportunities.”

Statues, he said with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, “are for dogs and birds.”

© 2022 The New York Times Company

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