BYRON, Beverly Barton Butcher

BYRON, Beverly Barton Butcher
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
1932–

Biography

After winning the election to fill the seat of her late husband, Beverly Byron went on to have a 14–year career in the House of Representatives. She used the experience she acquired as an unpaid aide to her husband and her family background to assert herself as an influential member of the Armed Services Committee. As a staunch defender of both military and defense spending, Congresswoman Byron served as one of the more conservative Democrats in Congress.

Beverly Barton Butcher was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on July 27, 1932, to Harry C. and Ruth B. Butcher. She grew up in Washington, D.C., where her father managed a radio station before becoming an aide to General Dwight Eisenhower for a short period of time in World War II. She graduated from the National Cathedral School in Washington, D.C., in 1950. She married Goodloe E. Byron in 1952. In 1963, she attended Hood College in Frederick, Maryland. She became active in politics at about that time, serving in 1962 and 1965 as a treasurer for the Maryland Young Democrats. She also participated in her husband’s successful campaigns for the Maryland legislature and, in 1970, for a U.S. House seat that encompassed western Maryland. During her husband’s tenure as a Representative, she worked closely with him, even debating his opponents on occasion when his official duties prevented district visits.1

One month before the general election in 1978, Goodloe Byron died of a heart attack while jogging along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. Before finding time to gain perspective on the tragedy, Beverly Byron was pressured by local Democratic leaders, who faced a seven–day deadline to name an alternate candidate. “Before I knew what was happening, the officials from Annapolis were in my living room with papers to sign,” Byron recalled. “My children made the decision for me.” In addition to heeding the advice of Goodloe, Jr., B. Kimball, and Mary, Byron further explained her motivation to campaign for her husband’s seat when she commented, “I knew the things he stood for and I understood how he felt. I wanted to give it a try. All you can do is try.”2 In the general election, Byron easily defeated her Republican opponent Melvin Perkins, an unemployed vagrant, capturing 90 percent of the vote.3 In winning election to the 96th Congress (1979–1981), she succeeded her husband, just as his mother, Katharine E. Byron, had succeeded her husband (Goodloe’s father), William D. Byron, following the latter’s death in 1941.

Representative Beverley Byron earned a reputation as a conservative Democrat who voted for Ronald W. Reagan and George H.W. Bush administration policies, frequently breaking ranks with moderate and liberal Democrats on both fiscal and social issues. She opposed a national health care system and a woman’s right to seek an abortion except in extreme cases where the mother’s life was in danger. In 1981, she was one of only two northern Democrats in the House to support President Reagan’s budget, declaring, “The system we’ve been working under has not worked. I’m willing to give the President’s proposals a chance.”4 Although she often angered fellow Democrats with her conservative agenda, Byron’s party–crossing habit worked well in her right–of–center district. As the fourth person of the “Byron dynasty,” she, much like her late husband and his parents, adopted a political agenda that typically mirrored the conservative interests of the majority of people living in western Maryland.5 Beverly Byron won re–election to the next six Congresses without seriously being challenged, accumulating between 65 and 75 percent of the vote.6 She received her husband’s committee assignments on Armed Services and the Select Committee on Aging. In the 97th Congress (1981–1983), she served on the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee. She held all three assignments until she left Congress in 1993.

Congresswoman Byron’s legislative interests gravitated toward military policy. From 1983 to 1986, she chaired the House Special Panel on Arms Control and Disarm–ament, where she sought to limit the scope of nuclear test ban proposals. She also backed the development of the MX Missile (the experimental mobile nuclear missile system), supporting the Reagan administration’s contention that it would serve as a bargaining chip during future arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union. In a 1984 debate, Byron urged her colleagues in the House to support funding for the weapon: “I think for this nation, at this time, to decide not to go ahead with the MX, to let down our NATO allies, to not support the continuation of the modernization of our missile program is a wrong signal.”7 During her congressional career, Byron visited numerous military facilities and built a reputation for examining military hardware firsthand during inspections. In November 1985, Byron became the first woman to fly in the military’s premier spy plane, the SR–71 “Blackbird,” capable of cruising at Mach 3 (three times the speed of sound) at an altitude of about 90,000 feet.

In 1987, Byron beat out Representative Pat Schroeder, a more senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, for election as chair of the influential Military Personnel and Compensation Subcommittee. Two years earlier, Representative Les Aspin of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, had deferred plans to create a new military subcommittee for fear that a “civil war” would ensue; conservative members of Armed Services wanted Byron as head of the new subcommittee rather than Aspin’s political ally, Schroeder.8 Despite his delaying tactics, Aspin failed to muster enough support for Schroeder in 1987, thereby allowing Byron to assume a leadership role. As the first woman to head an Armed Services subcommittee, Byron oversaw more than 40 percent of the Defense Department’s budget and had a hand in shaping military policy that coincided with the dismantling of the Warsaw Pact (the Eastern European Communist military coalition) and the end of the Soviet Union itself. Though she rarely wavered from her support for defense expenditures, Byron openly criticized the military during the Navy’s “Tailhook” sexual harassment scandal of the early 1990s.

As a Representative, Byron did not consider the advancement of women’s rights a priority. Admittedly not attuned to gender discrimination, she once stated, “It’s hard for me to understand people who have doors closed on them.”9 Although she joined the Congressional Women’s Caucus, Byron rarely participated in the meetings and activities of the organization. When caucus leaders modified the bylaws in 1981 to bolster its effectiveness, Byron balked at the changes, such as the new mandatory annual dues. She resigned from the caucus shortly thereafter declaring that, “I can’t justify it for the amount of work I get in return in my district. I think there are others that feel the same.”10 Despite her inclination to align herself with congressional conservatives in both parties, Byron voted for the Equal Rights Amendment in 1983. Undecided until the day of the vote on the floor, she divulged that she found the legislation compelling because it might lead to greater opportunities for her daughter. When asked about her decision to back the amendment, Byron proclaimed that she voted her conscience, remarking, “Eventually, you just have to make up your mind.”11

By the early 1990s, Byron’s conservatism did not rest easily with the liberal wing of her party and with some of her constituents. “I go home and I get beat up,” she said at the time. “Down here [in Washington], I’m wonderful.”12 Throughout her career, Byron expended little effort or money when campaigning for re–election, rarely conducting polls or running advertisements attacking her opponents. In March 1992, Byron’s hands–off approach to campaigning played a part in her surprising loss in the Democratic primary. Tom Hattery, a liberal state legislator who insisted that Byron was out of touch with her district because she agreed to take a large congressional pay raise while western Maryland suffered from a nine percent unemployment rate, garnered 56 percent of the vote in the primary. Byron’s electoral upset—she was the first incumbent woman to lose a House race since 1984 and the first sitting Member to lose in the 1992 primaries—signaled an anti–incumbent mood that proved decisive in the fall elections. It also marked the first time in more than two decades that a Byron would not represent western Maryland.13

After Congress, Beverly Byron returned to Frederick, Maryland, with her second husband, B. Kirk Walsh, and served on the board of directors for a major defense contractor. In 1995, President William J. Clinton appointed her to the Naval Academy Board of Visitors. Four years later, Byron became a member of the Board of Regents for the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.

Footnotes

1Donald P. Baker, “Mrs. Byron Succeeds Husband as Candidate for Congress,” 13 October 1978, Washington Post: C1.

2Lois Romano, “Women in the Line of Succession,” 13 October 1983, Washington Post: D1.

3Baker, “Mrs. Byron Succeeds Husband as Candidate for Congress.”

4Dale Russakoff, “Beverly Byron’s GOP Vote,” 9 July 1981, Washington Post: A1.

5Russakoff, “Beverly Byron’s GOP Vote” “Congressional Choices: Maryland,” 20 October 1982, Washington Post: A22.

6“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present,” http://clerk.house.gov/member_info/electionInfo/index.aspx.

7Congressional Record, House, 98th Cong., 2nd sess. (16 May 1984): 12530.

8Steven V. Roberts, “Mission: Melt the Rubber in the Pentagon Stamp,” 5 February 1985, New York Times: A20.

9Irwin Gertzog, Congressional Women: Their Recruitment, Integration, and Behavior (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995): 261.

10Lynn Rosellini, “Dues Plan Divides Women’s Caucus,” 16 July 1981, New York Times: C13; see also, Gertzog, Congressional Women: 208, 261.

11Margaret Shapiro, “Rep. Beverly Byron’s Dilemma on the ERA,” 16 November 1983, Washington Post: A9.

12Dan Beyers, “In 6th Byron Dynasty Fell to Young Turk,” 5 March 1992, Washington Post: C1; see also, Dan Beyers, “6th District: A Second Match up for Hattery, Byron,” 27 February 1992, Washington Post: M9.

13Beyers, “In 6th Byron Dynasty Fell to Young Turk”; Beyers, “6th District: A Second Match up for Hattery, Byron.”

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

[ Top ]

External Research Collections

Dwight D. Eisenhower Library

Abilene, KS
Papers: In the Harry C. Butcher Papers, 1910-1959, 5.4 linear feet. Correspondents include Beverly Byron. A finding aid is available in the repository.

University of Maryland
Special Collections and University Archives

College Park, MD
Papers: The papers of Congresswoman Beverly Byron have not yet been processed.
Papers: In the Byron Family papers, ca. 1860-1993, 66 linear feet. Persons represented include Beverly Byron.
[ Top ]

Bibliography / Further Reading

"Beverly Butcher Byron" in Women in Congress, 1917-2006. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U.S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2006.

[ Top ]

Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - Armed Services
    • Military Personnel and Compensation - Chair
  • House Committee - Interior and Insular Affairs
  • House Committee - Select Committee on Aging
[ Top ]

Related Media

"They Are Four Peas, but They're Not in the Same Pod"

The Honorable Beverly Barton Butcher Byron recalls the differences between the women of the Maryland delegation.

The Honorable Beverly Barton Butcher Byron, U.S. Representative of Maryland
Interview recorded June 15, 2016 Deed of Gift
Transcript (PDF)

Congress and Hard Work

The Honorable Beverly Barton Butcher Byron describes how she defied the conventional thinking of the time by pursuing her own congressional career after the death of her husband.

The Honorable Beverly Barton Butcher Byron, U.S. Representative of Maryland
Interview recorded June 15, 2016 Deed of Gift
Transcript (PDF)