Dan Rostenkowski: a Washington giant, a casualty of scandal

Dan Rostenkowski, once called one of the nation's most power politicians, died Wednesday. His lengthy political career in Washington began in 1958 and ended amid scandal in 1994.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP/File
In this April 20, 2005 file photo, former Illinois Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (r.) and former Vice President Walter F. Mondale, speak at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

In his time, Dan Rostenkowski was a giant of Washington. The 18-term Democratic congressman from Chicago was a politician who combined the sharp political instincts of an alderman with a legislative ability reminiscent of Lyndon B. Johnson.

He went to federal prison on corruption charges. He knew that would be the first line about him in the history books. “It is something I have to live with,” he said in a 1998 broadcast interview.

But Mr. Rostenkowski, who died Wednesday, also knew that his impact on the nation’s policies was immense.

As chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, he brokered passage of some of the most important bills of the Ronald Reagan era.

In 1983, he managed a rescue effort for Social Security. In 1986, he pushed through a tax reform effort that flattened rates and simplified the system. He was an important force behind passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, defying protectionist sentiment within important elements of his own party.

In 1990, the Almanac of American Politics judged him “one of the nation’s most powerful and also one it’s most productive legislators."

Not many would have predicted that he would reach such heights when he started off, noted his entry in the Almanac. He was the son of a Chicago alderman, and not a lawyer, or inheritor of an intellectual political tradition.

But he developed, before his fall, something unexpected, something that “must be called a patriotic desire to make good policy,” judged the Almanac’s authors.

He also remade the face of Chicago with federal money, in the same manner in which the late Sen. Robert Byrd remade West Virginia. Rostenkowski landed hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, subsidies, and contracts for various Chicago-based efforts.

“He was the go-to guy for [Chicago] mayors,” said former Secretary of Commerce William Daley, himself a son of a legendary Chicago political family.

Rostenkowski was born into his own Polish-American Chicago political family in 1928. Athletic as a youngster, he turned down a chance to try out for the Philadelphia Athletics due to his father’s wishes. He served in the Army in Korea and graduated from Loyola University in 1951.

The next year he won a seat in the Illinois House, and his career was off and running. He moved to Congress in 1958. At the time of his death, he was living in the Chicago home where he grew up, among his former Chicago constituents.

He won a seat on the Ways and Means Committee in 1961 and stayed there for the rest of his time in Washington, assuming the chairmanship in 1981. He kept that position until his defeat in 1994, amidst scandal.

His legislative achievements were all the more important because his time at the height of power coincided with a period of largely divided US government.

Ronald Reagan sat in the White House. Yet Rostenkowski excelled at the sort of arm-twisting and compromise necessary to enact legislation that would pass muster both with enough congressional Democrats and the Republican at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Yet he was raised at the tail end of the urban political-machine era, and perhaps did not understand the new rules of the game. Beginning in 1992, his power ebbed, then flowed out like water from a burst dam, as a federal inquiry into abuses at the House post office implicated him in a possible conversion of stamps bought with public funds into cash.

In 1994, he was formally charged with a list of abuses and Republican Michael Flanagan beat him in the 1994 mid-term elections. He eventually pled guilty to two counts of mail fraud, and served 15 months in federal prisons. President Bill Clinton pardoned him in 2000.

Ever after Rostenkowski insisted that what he had done, at the worst, was a violation of House rules, not a crime.

On Wednesday, former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, remembered Rostenkowski as a skilled legislator willing to work with the GOP to get things done. But, he said, ”Rosty” didn't change as Washington did.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this article.

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