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Former Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski Dead at 82

3 years ago
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Former House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski died Wednesday at the age of 82 at his summer home in Wisconsin.

Rostenkowski was one of the most powerful lawmakers in the House, courted by presidents from both parties while living in a blue-collar Chicago neighborhood. His career came to an end because of a scandal that earned him a 17 month sentence. At the peak of his power, Rostenkowski -- many called him Danny -- delivered billions of dollars in federal money to Chicago, influenced tax policy for decades, and mastered the art of making a deal.

His funeral will be Tuesday at St. Stanislaus Kostka Church near his northwest side Chicago home. Rostenkowski had been battling lung cancer.

Rostenkowski, a gravelly voiced raconteur, loved telling stories about advice he gave to presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton and hated being interrupted. He presided over the Ways and Mean Committee for the rewriting in 1986 of the tax code and the passage of President Clinton's North American Free Trade Agreement. Rostenkowski considered the tax code overhaul one of his signature achievements.

dan rostenkowskiHis downfall came in a 17-count indictment in a prosecution quarterbacked by Eric Holder -- now the attorney general -- in 1994. The charges included stealing money from the House post office by converting stamps, putting employees on his congressional payroll who did little or no work, and giving supporters gifts purchased through the House stationery store. Rostenkowski avoided a trial, pleading guilty to two counts of mail fraud in 1996.

Rostenkowski maintained his innocence and never acknowledged any serious guilt, even when taking his plea deal. He served his time at the Oxford Correctional Facility in Wisconsin, not far from where he had a second home.

President Clinton granted Rostenkowski a complete pardon in 2000, but his legacy as powerhouse deal maker was forever tarnished.

Rostenkowski served 36 years in the House, representing a district in Chicago that in its day was a stronghold of machine-style Democratic Party politics. As the scandal was unfolding, Rostenkowski lost his seat to an unknown Republican in 1994, Michael Flanagan, who served only one term. Flanagan was defeated by a then-state representative -- Rod Blagojevich. When Blagojevich decided to run for Illinois governor, his seat was won by Rahm Emanuel. A jury on Wednesday was in its 11th day of deliberations on Blagojevich's criminal corruption charges. Emanuel is now the chief of staff for the Obama White House.

Emanuel, asked to react to Rostenkowski's passing said, "I was saddened to learn of Dan Rostenkowski's passing. He was a master of the House and a master of the art of legislation. He was a major part of legislation for a generation and he left a large imprint on American history.

"I called Dan a few weeks ago and we reminisced about national and local politics and shared our war stories from our times in Congress. In our last conversation, he was honest and upfront about his condition -- but he still had the same enthusiasm for politics and our country that I saw all the years I knew him," Emanuel said.

Rostenkowski got to know Hillary Rodham Clinton when she was first lady, leading the Clinton White House health care overhaul drive. She testified before the House Ways and Means Committee, without notes, while Rostenkowski presided.

"We are deeply saddened by the passing of our friend Dan Rostenkowski," Bill and Hillary Clinton said in a statement. "Dan was a great chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, whose ability to get things done in Congress was indispensable in balancing the budget, while investing more in better education and in getting our economy on the right course at the end of the 20th century. We were also glad to work closely with him on health care reform, welfare reform, and crime prevention. He was a tireless advocate for the people of Chicago and a true patriot who served our country well. Our thoughts and prayers are with LaVerne and their three daughters."

Daniel Rostenkowski was born on Jan. 2, 1928, the son of Priscilla and Joseph -- an alderman and a Democratic Party ward boss from a Chicago Polish neighborhood who paved the way for the political career of his son. Rostenkowski's first elected post was the Illinois State House, followed by a stint in the Illinois State Senate. He first ran for Congress in 1958, building seniority that made him former Mayor Richard J. Daley's main man in Washington. Rostenkowski's House career started to climb when Thomas "Tip" O'Neill became Speaker of the House. Through seniority, Rostenkowski rose to the top spot on Ways and Means -- and acquired the nickname "Mr. Chairman" when he won the gavel.

Rostenkowski was affable, at home in a steak house, able to knock down a few cocktails and still regale a table with his stories. He thrived during the Reagan years, able to work across the aisle with his adroit deal-making skills.

Rostenkowski graduated from St. John's Military Academy in Wisconsin and attended Loyola University in Chicago. A stand-out athlete, in 1948 and 1949 he tried out with the Chicago White Sox and Philadelphia Athletics. An Army veteran, Rostenkowski served in Korea.

Rostenkowski married in 1951. He and wife LaVerne had four daughters. He lived his entire life in the home where he was born -- across the street from St. Stanislaus Kostka Church.

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