Former Congressman Dan Rostenkowski died of lung cancer today at the age of 82. Her served on Capitol Hill from 1958 to 1994 and was Chairman of the Democratic Caucus and the House Ways and Means Committee. He was a liberal Democrat but unlike many in his party, he was never a protectionist. One of his greatest triumphs was passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
A National Journal profile said “The Chairman is a man of action, not words; a doer, not a rhetorician; one who thrives at the negotiating table, not the speaker’s lectern. . . he has nourished an image as a legislative strategist that is perhaps unsurpassed on Capitol Hill”. He wrote his own epitaph in 1991 by telling aides: “Is it good law? I want people to be able to say, that son of a gun, he had some guts, he had some fortitude, he realized what you had to be in order to be a national legislator.”
The excerpt below is from “Remembering Rosty” by Carol Martin of WMAQ.
Mr. Chairman, I asked, what’s the difference in politics between the way things are and the way they were? ’The 24 hour news cycle!’ he boomed. ‘They don’t care about accuracy. But then again, Carol, the whole world has changed… Legislators don’t have the opportunity to let people absorb what the meaningful legislation they are proposing means.’ Rostenkowski coughs again, and then said, ‘I watch all these talk shows….you people in your 4th estate aren’t analyzing anything anymore….the competition is so great.’ “Democracy, he told me, is painful. It requires sacrifice, and is endlessly complex. The complexity was something he reveled in as the powerful Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee from 1981-94, a period of time in which he and a Republican president, Ronald Reagan, worked out revisions of the tax code. But the politics of his time became more complex as well. And soon he was on the wrong end of a federal investigation that sent him to prison. ‘I attended Oxford,’ he would later say ruefully. Not the University. The prison.
Rosetenkowski received a presidential pardon from Bill Clinton in 2000. Among those who urged Clinton to grant the pardon were former President Gerald Ford and former House Republican Leader Bob Michel (IL). Biographer Richard Cohen wrote that Rostenkowski was “among the half dozen most influential members of Congress during the second half of the 20th century.”