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Dan Rostenkowski 1928-2010

Dan Rostenkowski, 82; powerful committee chairman in U.S. House

The Chicago Democrat rose to become one of the most powerful members of the U.S. House of Representatives before he lost his seat and was jailed on felony corruption charges.

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By Emma Brown
Thursday, August 12, 2010

Dan Rostenkowski, 82, a product of the Chicago Democratic political machine who became one of the most powerful members of the U.S. House of Representatives before he lost his seat and was jailed for fraud, died Wednesday of cancer at his summer home in Genoa City, Wis.

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In 18 terms in office, Mr. Rostenkowski worked to shake what he said was his reputation as a political hack. He rose to become chief architect of the nation's tax policies as chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, and in 1983, he was instrumental in passing an overhaul of Social Security that kept the retirement system solvent.

Three years later, he engineered the most extensive revision of the nation's tax code since World War II. Hailed by President Ronald Reagan as "a second American Revolution," the bipartisan compromise closed loopholes for corporations, eliminated tax shelters and exempted millions of low-income workers from paying taxes.

"That deal could not have been done without Rostenkowski," said Paul Green, a political science professor at Roosevelt University in Chicago. "I don't know if he would pass a CPA exam, but he knew how to count votes in the House."

Mr. Rostenkowski, the son of a Chicago alderman and ward committeeman who trafficked in political favors, entered Congress in 1959 with the backing of Mayor Richard J. Daley, patriarch of the city's machine. As the mayor's man in Washington, Mr. Rostenkowski delivered billions of federal dollars to Chicago, including $450 million to repair the city's John F. Kennedy Expressway and $4 billion for the Deep Tunnel project to keep sewage out of Lake Michigan.

An expert horse-trader and arm-twister in the tradition of his hometown politics, the jowly, 6-foot-2 lawmaker from Illinois relished Washington gamesmanship.

But Mr. Rostenkowski was more interested in passing legislation than in political posturing, Green said, and was willing to court Republicans as well as his fellow Democrats. The congressman largely avoided television cameras and ignored polls, employing neither press aides nor political consultants for most of his career.

"You don't have many men like him there anymore who can work both sides of the aisle," Green said. "He reflected a bygone era, not only in Chicago politics but in national politics."

By the early 1990s, he was poised to be President Bill Clinton's most important congressional ally. But for all Mr. Rostenkowski's clout in Washington and Chicago, he was little known to the wider public until his legal troubles hit newspapers' front pages.

In 1993, former House postmaster Robert V. Rota pleaded guilty to helping representatives embezzle money through fraudulent stamp-buying deals.

The ensuing investigation resulted in a six-month jail sentence for Rep. Joseph P. Kolter (D-Pa.) and the indictment of Mr. Rostenkowski on 17 felony counts. Among other crimes, he was charged with taking at least $50,000 from the post office and using federal money to pay "ghost employees," who mowed Mr. Rostenkowski's lawn and supervised the renovation of his home instead of working on public business.

Under House rules, the indictment meant that Mr. Rostenkowski had to give up the Ways and Means chairmanship in July 1994. Months later, he lost his seat to Republican Michael Patrick Flanagan (R).

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