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Former Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski Dead at 82

4 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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45 Comments

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diazsteve

Wasn't Rostenkowski the reason WJ Clinton fired ALL of the federal prosecutors?

August 11 2010 at 11:51 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
snosnake18

Illinois has twice as much govt. as the next nearest state(PA) even after they leave office they get 5 million$ a year to keep an office average pay for their secratary is 116000$ a year each and they all have two or more as far as I am concerned we now have one less crooked politition from chicago if we need to make cuts to balance the budget why dont we hear about cutting some of these highly paid perks instead its always social security schools police and fire never hear about the big bucks they give themselves may he rest in peace

August 11 2010 at 11:03 PM Report abuse +10 rate up rate down Reply
tconr9

Rostenkowski screwed government workers by cutting social security benefits for those who also EARNED a government pension.

August 11 2010 at 10:29 PM Report abuse +11 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to tconr9's comment
Bill

yes, and you will pay those big fat government pensions worth far far more than SS will ever be. I will draw the max on SS but it is a pittance (sic) compared to the government pensions. In fact, one day maybe we'll wake up and tax all retirement income to some degree. There ought to be a ceiling of retirement income where the SS is decreased or eliminated for fat cat retirees. After all, what senator or congressman or even what president deserves a dime of SS when they have huge pensions. Wake up and smell the money...it's yours

August 11 2010 at 10:46 PM Report abuse +12 rate up rate down Reply
harolddundee

Dan Rostenkowski was no worse than any of the others.

August 11 2010 at 9:08 PM Report abuse -6 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to harolddundee's comment
Clue

The bar must be on the floor then.

August 11 2010 at 11:04 PM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply
bpchi

I think about "The Chairman" every month when I get My Social Security check. Thanks to him I am getting half of what I should be receiving for over thirty of hard work, Being a Politican he never worked hard a day in his Life!

August 11 2010 at 8:41 PM Report abuse +12 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to bpchi's comment
Clue

You're lucky to be getting anything from SS. When I file for benefits, SS will be bankrupt. Today, SS is just another liberal tax ploy. Anyone with half a brain would want to privatize it NOW!!! I know how to plan my retirement much better then Washington tax wonks!

August 11 2010 at 11:47 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
tlc5300

Any time anyone drives down the "Dan Ryan" in Chicago, they should thank "Danny". Without Mr. Rostinkowski, Chicago wouldn't be the Jewel of the Mid-West. The Dan Ryan and Kennedy expresswyas weren't only dangerous but ugly. Many a mans first glimpse of Chicago was on those expressways and now they're beautiful. He made sure that Chicago could build the Museum campus, get rid of the "S" curve on Lakeshore Dr. build the "Sox" a new stadium, Navy Pier, and billions of dollars of other projects he earmarked for his beloved Chicago. The rest of the country doesn't understand us and can't figure out why we get jobs for friends. But we do and Dan was a hell of a man who will go down in history as one of the greatest Chicagoans.

August 11 2010 at 6:22 PM Report abuse -18 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to tlc5300's comment
evanrogers

Can't express hiow delighted i am to know just how much of my hard earned federal tax dollars went toward what should have b een state and local projects like the new stadium. You want a new stadium in your town, build it yourself, Dallas did.

August 11 2010 at 7:52 PM Report abuse +17 rate up rate down Reply
jcgreenleaf

Sorry to hear of his passing.
He was truly an "old neighborhood" type politician.
He was always there to help...if you asked.
He never knew the word no.
Take care Rosty...peace.

August 11 2010 at 6:18 PM Report abuse -7 rate up rate down Reply
evanrogers

MY God, after reading this article one has to wonder if any honest politician has come out of Illinois since Abe Lincoln. It is a septic tank of corruption. Al Capone would probably be shocked at the depths of corruption in this state. You can bet that Blagojevich received a package of dead fish in the mail with a note saying "keep your mouth shut" or else. As noted, he did not testify.

August 11 2010 at 5:28 PM Report abuse +23 rate up rate down Reply
Michael

I remember Mr. Rostenkowski well even though I was a kid. He was a prominant figure here.I send my condolences to his family and asked that God lead you at this time. Time has changed but we could really use more politicians like him. I dont know if he did what they said he did but I do know that he cared for the people and he delivered to the people and he was benefitial to our state. RIP Mr. Rostenkowski.

August 11 2010 at 5:13 PM Report abuse -15 rate up rate down Reply
rak458

With his passing, Sen Byrd, Sen Kennedy and Sen Stevens, the torch is moving on to a new generation of polititians.
Lets hope and pray, a more ethical bunch and one that will work to return the government to the people and not the will of those who govern.
That being said RIP Danny

August 11 2010 at 4:55 PM Report abuse +25 rate up rate down Reply

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