No one can argue that Richard Shelby has not been committed to serving the State of Alabama.

When our senior Senator officially leaves office in January 2023, he will be leaving a position that he held for 36 years, and is already Alabama’s longest-serving senator. His retirement will mark the end of nearly 52 years of elected public service.

There is no question Alabama has benefitted from Shelby’s presence in Washington. Over the course of his career, Richard Shelby has served as Chairman or Ranking Member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Banking Committee, Rules Committee, and spent decades on probably the most powerful of all, the Appropriations Committee. Shelby has been able to leverage his power and seniority into untold billions of dollars for the State of Alabama.

But as the Shelby era comes to an end, the people of Alabama have the opportunity to reflect on Shelby’s role in national politics and reevaluate what they want from their next senator.

Because it could be essentially a lifetime appointment.

Consider this: Shelby will have served 36 years when he leaves office. J. Lister Hill served in the same seat for 31 years. Hill’s replacement, James Allen, served for almost 10 years before dying in office.

Senator John Sparkman held the state’s other Senate seat for over 32 years. His replacement, Howell Heflin, served 18 years before retiring. Jeff Sessions held the seat for the next 20 years and might still be in office had he not resigned to become President Trump’s Attorney General.

Alabama has had 46 senators. Only 10 left office because they lost renomination or re-election.

Shelby was 52 when he became a senator. Given that several of the 2022 candidates are considerably younger than Shelby was when he took office, they could serve just as long, if not longer than he has.

Thomas Sowell once said, “Longevity in office creates more longevity in office.” That is the power of incumbency.

Everyone running for Shelby’s position says they represent “Alabama values,” so maybe it’s time we in Alabama thought about what those values are, or at least should be.

Are Alabamians content with the current state of national politics? The direction of the federal government? If the answer is no, then some of the blame falls on Richard Shelby.

During Shelby’s tenure in Washington, the federal government has grown exponentially. When Shelby was sworn into the Senate in 1987, total federal spending was just over $1 trillion. That’s actual dollars, not inflation-adjusted because inflation is essentially a byproduct of the federal government spending beyond its means. The deficit that year was less than $150 billion.

Contrast those numbers with today. In fiscal year 2021 federal spending surpassed $6.8 trillion, a nearly 600 percent increase compared to when Shelby was first elected to the Senate. Last year the annual deficit was $2.8 trillion, almost 19 times what it was in 1987.

Yes, COVID-19 relief and stimulus meant more federal spending in 2020 and 2021. But Congress could have made stimulus bills smaller and better targeted. And even pre-pandemic, spending had nearly doubled over Shelby’s Senate tenure.

The flow of federal dollars to Alabama has also grown in the past 35 years. If you walk around any major college campus in the state - with the Shelby name adorning building after building - you will know that Richard Shelby and his powerful spot on the Senate Appropriations Committee played no small role in that.

In 1987 total federal aid to Alabama was less than $14 billion. In 2021, aid exceeded $66 billion.

Alabama receives about $2.54 back for every dollar that it sends to Washington. Part of Shelby’s job is to make sure that the state receives its “fair share” of federal dollars, and there is no doubt he’s done a terrific job of that.

But federal money isn’t free money. It reflects current and future tax dollars and greater borrowing by the federal government. Ultimately, we are all on the hook for that.

Federal money also comes with strings attached, such as restrictions on how funds can be used, required state matching dollars, etc. It means that Alabama has less say in how state revenues are being spent. It also means a greater dependency on the federal government. And Alabama already ranks high on the dependency list. With so much money at stake, that dependence may force states to adopt policies that don’t reflect the values of the state, to keep federal funds flowing.

Alabama’s dependence on the federal government could also create a funding gap when Shelby leaves office. His seniority has brought more money into the state. When Shelby leaves office, that seniority leaves with him. California, home of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, receives more federal money than any other state. Mitch McConnell’s home state of Kentucky receives the second-highest amount of federal funding per resident. Seniority translates to money for states.

If Alabama were not so dependent on federal funding, then perhaps incumbency would be a less powerful tool for politicians.

The last few decades also marked a period of general dysfunction, but particularly budget dysfunction, in Washington.

One of Congress’ jobs is to pass a budget each year. The federal budget not only sets national priorities for the future, but more practically it guides the annual appropriations process. In the last decade, Congress has approved just three budget resolutions. Congress hasn’t enacted all appropriations bills on time in more than 25 years and there have been eight government shutdowns since 1987. Again, Shelby oversaw much of this from his seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

A government shutdown should be a means to slow federal spending and evoke policy change but has become a political tool these days to be used by one party against the other. Under Article I of the Constitution, Congress alone holds the power of the purse. If lawmakers don’t agree with the actions of a federal agency, it is within their authority to withhold funding and demand change, or at the very least strong accountability.

The new year will quickly bring us into primary season, then the fall election. The question we should be asking is, what do Alabamians want the future to look like? Do we want more of the same or a different direction from the federal government?

If Alabamians are content with how things are going, then there could be disastrous consequences for Alabama and the nation as a whole. The country is on an unsustainable spending course where the federal government continues to grow every year, crowding out private investment and infringing into more and more areas of our lives.

Don’t misunderstand. This is hardly all Richard Shelby’s fault. Anyone serving in Congress over the past few decades played a role. And to be fair, Shelby did oppose some of those things. But he also sat on the most powerful committee in Congress and watched much of it happen.

Maybe Alabamians had different priorities when Shelby was elected to his “life-term” in 1987, but these are not the conservative and free-market-oriented ideas that most claim to support today. The citizens of Alabama say they want less government in their lives, not more. That means supporting a candidate that will fight for lower taxes, less spending, more state sovereignty, and fewer regulatory barriers that impede the private sector from flourishing.

Before voters elect someone to replace Shelby, they must do their due diligence and ensure (as much as you ever can with politicians) that the candidate is reflective of the voters' principles. The federal government’s current spending trajectory is unsustainable. Congress has had opportunities to change course but ignored the problem, perpetually kicking that can down the road in order to win the next election.

At some point, Congress will have no choice but to confront the issue. Alabama’s next senator will likely be involved in that process.

Do Alabamians want someone who will be a strong voice in reforming the federal government, or a senator that will continue the status quo?

Ray Melick is Editor-in-Chief of 1819 News. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to