Dan Rostenkowski, Congress' Fallen Titan, Dead At 82

Dan Rostenkowski in 1989 when he was House Ways and Means Committee chairman.  (BOB DAUGHERTY/AP)
Dan Rostenkowski in 1989 when he was House Ways and Means Committee chairman.  (BOB DAUGHERTY/AP)

Dan Rostenkowski, once one of Capitol Hill's most powerful men, who lost it all in a congressional scandal that led to a prison term, died at age 82 on Wednesday.

For many Americans of a certain age, Rostenkowski, who served in the House from 1959 to 1995, came to be seen as the epitome of the tough-talking Chicago pol, the product of the political machine who knew how to cut back-room deals with the best of them. And that was a fairly accurate description.

Affectionately known by friends as "Rosty," he was, like former Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska who died in a Monday plane crash, a master at bringing federal tax payer money back home to the people who kept returning him to Washington.

At the height of his power in Washington, the Democrat was chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee which writes the nation's tax laws.

That made Rostenskowki a major power center in the nation's capital, not bad for the son of a Chicago alderman from a blue-collar neighborhood in the city's Polish district.

But as is true for many a Washington figure, Rostenkowski laid the seeds of his own political destruction and, to some degree, his party's, at least when it came to its control of Congress.

He got caught up in the House banking scandal and was prosecuted by the Justice Department after a two-year investigation. Among the charges was that he used official congressional funds to buy gifts for friends. Justice's top prosecutor against Rostenkowski was a younger version of Attorney General Eric Holder.

His chicanery helped Democrats lose control of the House in 1994.

On his conviction, Rostenkowski was sternly rebuked by the judge. An except from a report Edward Lifson did for NPR in 1996:

EDWARD LIFSON, Reporter: The judge in U.S. district court in Washington, D.C., lectured Rostenkowski before accepting his plea bargain. `You have brought a measure of disgrace to Congress. You shamelessly abused your position,' Judge Norma Holloway Johnson [sp] told the 68-year-old, tough-to-the-end, Chicago congressman. She gave him 30 days to report to federal prison. Rostenkowski then walked outdoors to give a press conference.

DAN ROSTENKOWSKI, Former U.S. Congressman: The time has come for me to put this matter behind me and my family.

EDWARD LIFSON: Rostenkowski's only admission of guilt outside of court was that he may have technically broken some rules of the House of Representatives.

DAN ROSTENKOWSKI: At no time did I ever misappropriate any money or property from the congressional post office. And I never did anything to obstruct justice or intimidate any witnesses charged in the indictment.

EDWARD LIFSON: He went on to say that what he did is done by the vast majority of the members of Congress who are often not aware that they're breaking rules.

"The Chairman," as Rostenkowski was also called, was pardoned by President Bill Clinton in 2000.

Rostenkowski was much more than his criminal record. His hands were on decades of major legislation from the tax code to Social Security and Medicare. But it's likely the way he left office that will be remembered by most Americans, if they remember him at all.

Copyright NPR 2022.




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