Chicago Democrat Dan Rostenkowski, who for 13 years wrote tax laws and loopholes as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, was the gruff, deal-making, steak-devouring embodiment of Congress in the second half of the 20th century.
Rostenkowski, who served 18 terms in Congress before losing in 1994, died Wednesday. He was 82.
"I've never had anybody call me and suggest that they want to be taxed," he said in a C-SPAN interview in 1993 when he helped write a deficit-reduction bill for President Clinton. "And I just hope the Senate and the House of Representatives will respond. The people want us to govern."
And govern he did. As chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, Rostenkowski helped overhaul the entire tax code, pass a fix for Social Security financing and reduce the deficit.
Former Rep. Tom Downey (D-NY) served on Ways and Means for 14 years, studying the Rostenkowski approach. "You try to work out deals with Republicans, try to get a bipartisan package put together if you could, and then bring that to the floor. That was good legislation, for him," Downey said.
As to just how that good legislating was facilitated, Downey says Rostenkowski favored Morton's The Steakhouse. "The members would all go there and some lobbyist or group of lobbyists would pick up dinner," he said. "There would be steaks and lot of carousing."
But the country was changing around Rostenkowski. In 1989, senior citizens rebelled against a Medicare revision that he had championed.
CBS News covered a constituent meeting in Chicago after which Rostenkowski raced across the street to his waiting car and driver, pursued by angry senior citizens. "He's not a congressman. He's a bum," they shouted. "He's supposed to represent the people, not himself."
In 1992, Rostenkowski got a subpoena that marked the start of an investigation by the Justice Department into allegations that he misused public funds. He lost his seat in 1994 and was convicted two years later.
"I personally have come to accept the fact that sometimes one person gets singled out, to be held up by law enforcement as an example," he said of the verdict.
Rostenkowski served 17 months in prison, but he didn't let his family visit him.
Over the years, he grew more reflective.
"You walk into a room that you used to take command of, and then you get into this frame of mind where you're thinking everybody's looking at you, and you're a crook," he told C-SPAN in a 2005 interview. "And that's sad."
But Rostenkowski also talked about a reunion with his Ways and Means staff.
"We had a great time, great dinner," he recalled. "They were all still proud of the service that we rendered, and, of course, me in particular."
Photos: Rep. Dan Rostenkowski
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