Dan Rostenkowski dead at 82

Aug 11th, 2010 | By politicsnews | Category: Politics

Dan Rostenkowski, the iconic longtime House Ways and Means chairman whose legacy was tarnished by the Congressional Post Office scandal, died Wednesday at his home, according to several news reports.


He was 82.



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Rostenkowski had represented the 5th Congressional District in Chicago that later sent to the House Rod Blagojevich — the impeached Illinois governor now on trial on federal corruptions charges — and Rahm Emanuel — now the White House chief of staff.


The son of a Chicago alderman, Rostenkowski was elected to the House in 1958 and quickly made a name for himself among the rising Democratic stars of the early 1960s.


He was perhaps best known for his iron grip on the tax-writing gavel, which he held from 1981 to 1994, and for the Congressional Post Office scandal that punctuated his congressional career.


Originally indicted on 17 counts, including embezzlement from the post office and obstruction of justice, Rostenkowski pleaded guilty in 1996 to two counts of mail fraud, agreeing to a 17-month prison sentence. The federal prosecutor was Eric Holder, now the attorney general.

In 2000, after Rostenkowski had served his time, then-President Bill Clinton pardoned him in the waning days of the administration.  


He was at the helm of the committee when Congress extended the Social Security program’s solvency in 1983, created the health insurance law known as COBRA and overhauled the tax code in 1986.


He was also known for his role in passing “catastrophic coverage” legislation so unpopular that Congress was forced to repeal the law soon after its enactment. Senior citizens, spurred by now-Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), chased Rostenkowski from an event, creating a memorable video clip.


Though he would become familiar as the nation’s chief tax-writer, Rostenkowski started his career on a party leadership path.


In 1967, his colleagues elected him chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the fourth-ranking leadership post, and he appeared, at the time, to have a good shot at the speakership someday.


But his close connections to Mayor Richard J. Daley and President Lyndon B. Johnson would cost him dearly in internal House Democratic politics. The most fateful moment came when then-House Majority Leader Carl Albert of Oklahoma, presiding over the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, lost control of the boisterous hall, where a mix of vitriol over the Vietnam War and racial unrest had come to a boil.


Rostenkowski took a call from Johnson, who demanded order. And the brawny Rostenkowski then seized the gavel from the diminutive Albert and banged the hall to order — a slight that Albert would never forget.


Two years later, Albert was the Democrats’ choice for speaker, and his loyalists helped then-Rep. Olin Teague (D-Texas) unseat Rostenkowski as the caucus chairman.


Rostenkowski, who passed up a chance to run for House majority whip in 1981, would later advise a future Ways and Means successor, Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), that a lawmaker must pick between trying to become a party leader and trying to become a chairman.


Rostenkowski was forced to give up the Ways and Means gavel as his scandal unfolded in 1994. And he lost his House seat that November to Michael Flannery, the first Republican to hold it in 87 years.

Blagojevich returned the seat to the Democrats in 1996. And it was won by Emanuel in 2002 when Blagojevich successfully ran for governor.

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