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John N. Erlenborn, 78; 10-Term GOP Congressman

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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 2, 2005

John N. Erlenborn, 78, a 10-term Republican congressman from Illinois who championed the safeguarding of workers' pensions and fought the establishment of the Department of Education, died Oct. 30 at his home in Warrenton of Lewy body disease, a progressive neurological disorder. Mr. Erlenborn, who had lived in the Charles County community of Swan Point for 17 years, was building a home in Amissville, Va., at the time of his death.

First elected to the House of Representatives in 1964, Mr. Erlenborn won nine more elections from his suburban Chicago district, which was one of the richest in the country. He became known as "Mr. ERISA" for his unstinting support of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, which he shepherded through the House for six years before its passage in 1974. The act protected private pensions and required employers to provide information and a grievance process to their pensioners.

Republicans were the minority party for Mr. Erlenborn's entire congressional tenure. Even though he opposed many Democratic-sponsored programs of the 1960s and 1970s, he had friends on both sides of the aisle.

"He never got into the minority-loser frame of mind," former minority leader John J. Rhodes (R-Ariz.) once said.

As a longtime member of the Education and Labor Committee, Mr. Erlenborn consistently took positions that favored the interests of business and management. He opposed bills to increase the minimum wage, fought the creation of a consumer protection agency and attempted to strip the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission of any enforcement authority.

But his most dogged battle may have been against the formation of the Department of Education during the Carter administration. Practicing what he called "filibuster by amendment," Mr. Erlenborn presented dozens of riders and repeatedly ordered roll call votes to kill or delay the creation of the Cabinet department, which he thought would lead to "more federal domination" of schools.

John Neal Erlenborn was born in Chicago and grew up in suburban Elmhurst, Ill. He served in the Navy during World War II and attended the University of Notre Dame, Indiana University and the University of Illinois. He graduated from law school at Chicago's Loyola University in 1949.

After working as a prosecutor for two years, he had his own law firm from 1952 to 1971. He was a representative in the Illinois General Assembly from 1957 to 1964 before his election to the House from Illinois's 14th District. (It was later realigned as the 13th District.) Mr. Erlenborn never lost an election.

Despite a conservative record, he supported legislation to ban small, concealable handguns. He also was known for his fair-minded recommendations to military academies, supporting candidates regardless of political affiliation.

Saying that Republicans were "too outnumbered" in the House, he decided not to run for an 11th term in 1984.

"He was a little disappointed that decorum among members of Congress was breaking down and has continued since," son David Erlenborn said.

After retiring from Congress, Mr. Erlenborn was a partner in the Washington office of the Chicago law firm Seyfarth, Shaw, Fairweather and Geraldson. He taught at Georgetown University law school and was twice appointed to the board of the Legal Services Corp., a nonprofit corporation that helps provide access to legal expertise. He served as interim president from 2001 to 2003.

Mr. Erlenborn also was president of the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress and went to Eastern Europe in the early 1990s to assist emerging democracies in developing electoral systems.

Besides his son David, of Martinsville, N.J., survivors include his wife of 53 years, Dorothy C. Fisher Erlenborn of Warrenton; two other children, Debra L. Forrest of White Plains and Paul N. Erlenborn of Amissville; one sister; one brother; and four grandchildren.


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