ONE way or another, Dan Rostenkowski is out of his job as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
Mr. Rostenkowski may yet plead guilty to some charges to avoid others. Otherwise, he is expected to be charged today with a dozen or more instances of graft and corruption in the discharge of his duties. Just how these events play out holds important implications for Congress, the American public, and for health-care reform.
Under rules established by House Democrats, any committee chairman facing serious charges must give up his post. So whether Rosty, as his colleagues know him, finagles or fights, he's out.
Weekend speculation had the congressman from Chicago rejecting the plea bargain and disputing the charges. This course of action would be preferable for both Rostenkowski and the public good. We should remember that he is innocent until proved guilty; if Rostenkowski feels he is blameless, as has been reported, he should not hesitate to clear himself in court. A trial would permit a full public airing of the nature of the charges and the congressman's defense. If he accepts a plea bargain, steps must be taken to ensure that the public still receives a full accounting of the charges.
It is troubling that Washington lawyer Robert S. Bennett represents both Rostenkowski is this matter and Clinton in a sexual harassment suit brought by Paula Jones. With the chairman a key player pushing Clinton's congressional agenda, especially health-care reform, the overlapping legal counsel has had an uncomfortably incestuous appearance.
Depending on one's viewpoint, Rostenkowski is either a negotiator par excellence and master of the politically possible, or an arm-twisting bully boy who bends rules to serve his ends. Many feel that his political head banging is the only way to get an inherently obstreperous Congress to act on anything. Should citizens be satisfied that this is the only effective approach?
The president is selling the urgency of health-care reform. Rostenkowski's departure makes the task more difficult. But as Congress and the American people begin in earnest this week to consider the most important domestic legislation since Social Security, caution should be the watchword. Legislators and the public will prove that there is no such thing as an indispensable man.