William J. Coyne, Pa. congressman and Ways and Means committee member, dies at 77


Mr. Coyne, second from left, died Nov. 3 at 77. He is shown here in 1996 with, from left to right, House Budget Committee ranking minority member Rep. Martin O. Sabo (D-Minn.), Rep. Charles W. Stenholm (D-Texas) and Rep. William H. Orton (D-Utah) with his son Will Orton. (Ray Lustig/The Washington Post)
November 4, 2013

William J. Coyne, a Pennsylvania Democrat who championed struggling U.S. cities and the poor during his 22 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, died Nov. 3 at a hospital in Pittsburgh. He was 77.

The cause was complications from a fall in August, said his nephew Dan Coyne.

Mr. Coyne — a former Pittsburgh City Council member and chairman of the city’s Democratic Party — was first elected to the House in 1980 and developed a reputation as an industrious behind-the-scenes legislator.

By the time of his retirement in 2002, he was one of the top Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee, which oversees taxes and trade. A self-described “quiet person by nature,” he rarely if ever sought public credit for his accomplishments.

He was considered the “consummate workhorse,” said Kristin Kanthak, a University of Pittsburgh political science professor who was an aide to the late congressman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) when he was Ways and Means chairman.

Mr. Coyne had one of the most liberal voting records in the House, according to the Almanac of American Politics, and supported increased government spending on education, transportation and social services.

In particular, he frequently advocated on behalf of cities such as Pittsburgh that had suffered from the decline of manufacturing, and he pushed for government efforts for urban renewal.

“To tackle a problem of this proportion,” he once wrote in a constituent newsletter, “I believe we have to think along the lines we did when we initiated the Marshall Plan for postwar Europe. Our cities deserve no less an effort. Why shouldn’t we commit our resources to making distressed American cities competitive in the national economy just as we assisted European cities in the late 1940s?”

Mr. Coyne became known as a supporter of tax exemptions for small-issue industrial development bonds, which are designed to encourage investment. He also supported mortgage revenue bonds and housing tax credits, which are intended to assist home buyers.

“I would not be surprised,” Kanthak said, “if there’s a connection between his work for urban areas and the fact that Pittsburgh is doing much better than it was when he showed up in Washington.”

William Joseph Coyne was born Aug. 24, 1936, to an Irish American family in Pittsburgh. After Army service, he received an accounting degree in 1965 from Robert Morris University in Coraopolis, Pa.

Mr. Coyne worked in accounting before pursuing his political career. He served in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives from 1970 to 1972, then on the Pittsburgh City Council before his election to the U.S. House.

Mr. Coyne spoke critically about those who opposed direct government spending on the poor while at the same time supporting tax provisions that benefited the wealthy.

“Shakespeare was right: a rose by any name smells sweet,” he wrote in a 1981 commentary in the New York Times, “but Government handouts by some names seem less repugnant than by others. Members of the tax shelter crowd can feel smug about their financial wizardry while they complain about welfare ‘parasites.’ ”

Mr. Coyne was credited with promoting the earned income tax credit, which benefits taxpayers with low or moderate incomes.

He announced in 2001 that he would retire at the end of the term and, in that way, avoided a probable primary challenge after redistricting.

Survivors include his companion of 18 years, Kathy Kozdemba of Pittsburgh; and a brother. Until his death, Mr. Coyne lived in Pittsburgh and maintained a home in County Galway, Ireland, where his family had its roots.

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.
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