CALL it voter bait or political pork, but the billions of dollars brought home by Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D) of Illinois have sustained the Chicago economy like rich meat from a bursting larder.
By the reckoning of his staff, during 18 terms in Congress Mr. Rostenkowski has showered his district with public works and social welfare programs worth more than $4 billion. Consequently, some Chicago business executives and social welfare advocates sound like Rostenkowski supporters from his native 32nd Ward when they discuss the congressman's legal travails. (Rostenkowski was recently indicted on 17 counts of federal corruption charges and forced to resign as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.)
Rostenkowski's tumble imperils hundreds of millions of dollars in government-related programs planned for the Chicago area, these supporters say. They contend that unless federal prosecutors prevail against the congressman, voters should allow the many federal projects he has put together for Chicago to overshadow the long list of alleged wrongdoing.
``I haven't seen anything that would rival what this one political figure has been able to do for a local economy,'' says John Skorburg, chief economist and director of governmental affairs at the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce. In the 1990s alone, Rostenkowski has had a hand in current or planned projects worth more than $3 billion, Mr. Skorburg says.
``Rostenkowski has provided vital leadership for many neighborhood development projects, especially the Low Income Housing Tax Credit,'' says Ted Wysocki, director of the Chicago Association of Neighborhood Development Associations. The tax program led to the creation of more than 6,000 units of low-income housing in Chicago alone.
Not all of the local deals Rostenkowski has orchestrated have been universally welcomed, however, particularly those benefiting private business. Rostenkowski has been roundly criticized for arranging government-backed, low-interest loans for Presidential Towers, a luxury apartment complex on Chicago's Near West Side. The developer of the complex was excluded from a regulation requiring him to build apartments for low- and middle-income tenants. At the time, this developer managed the congressman's finances in a blind trust.
Dollars for districts
No independent comparisons are tallied of how many federal dollars national lawmakers amass for their districts, says Sean Paige, press spokesman for Citizens Against Government Waste, which annually publishes an expose of political patronage called the ``Pig Book.'' When Rostenkowski was chairman of the powerful House tax-writing body, he could reap federal dollars with a mere wink and nod rather than with the showy horse-trading required of less-influential representatives, Mr. Paige says.
Rostenkowski's record reads like a consummate example of how an adept Capitol Hill dealmaker can help a regional economy make and trade more goods and expand its private and public services. His largess includes federal programs for highways, tunnels, reservoirs, bridges, railways, bus routes, airports, housing, jobs, education, social security, and health care.
The congressman's influence has been most noticeable in transportation. He arranged $450 million in federal money to revamp the John F. Kennedy Expressway, a major artery for Chicago, and $260 million for the construction of a light-rail ``circulator'' in downtown Chicago.
The city of Chicago has seen Rostenkowski stumble at a time when it especially needs his skills in parlaying political influence into federal dollars. The city hopes to land $400 million in funding for the reconstruction of the Stevenson Expressway in 1997-98. It is angling to become one of six federal empowerment zones, a program that would bring $100 million to an impoverished neighborhood.
Chicago Democrats also are relying on Rostenkowski to help persuade the party to pick the city as host for the Democratic National Convention, a week-long assembly that would yield an estimated $200 million.