Dan Rostenkowski

By Cornwell, Rupert | The Independent (London, England), August 14, 2010 | Go to article overview
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Dan Rostenkowski

Cornwell, Rupert, The Independent (London, England)

Influential politician who served in the US House of Representative for 36 years but whose career ended in scandal

If you like your politics Chicago-style, then Dan Rostenkowski was your man. He was a creature of the smoke-filled room, a master of the deal, of favour given and favours returned. He was big and lumbering, but like any self-respecting product of the Chicago Democratic machine he could count votes. Depending on mood and circumstance, he could be grave, genial, wheedling or bullying. And like not a few politicians from the Windy City, he ended up a convicted felon.

Washington's culture has changed drastically since Rostenkowski's heyday - and no event captured the change more than his indictment in 1994 on corruption charges. His downfall was a factor in the rout of the Democrats in that year's mid-term elections, heralding the era of 24/7 partisan warfare that persists to this day. But it cannot erase Rostenkowski's huge legislative achievements, that led a biographer to describe him as "one of the half-dozen most influential members of Congress in the second half of the 20th century."

His father Joseph, known as "Big Joe Rusty", was alderman for Chicago's 32nd ward, a post he passed on to young Danny. At high school the son was a star athlete who was offered a try-out by the Philadelphia Athletics baseball team. But "Big Joe" wanted his boy to be a politician, and so it would be. In 1952, Rostenkowski was elected to the Illinois state legislature at the tender age of 24, and in 1958 he won the seat in the US House of Representatives that he would hold for 36 years.

For roughly the first 15 of them he was the protege of Richard Daley, Chicago's legendary mayor who decided everything in the city (not least who its voters would send to Washington). Every Friday "Rosty" would report in person to the "Boss" on what was happening in the capital. Over his career, Rostenkowski channelled vast sums of federal money to the Chicago area.

Soon though, he became a consequential figure in Washington in his own right. In 1961 he captured a coveted seat on the House's tax- writing Ways and Means committee, through which virtually all major legislation passed, and quickly earned a reputation as someone who could operate across party lines to get things done.

In 1965, Rostenkowski helped write the Medicare legislation that transformed American health care. In 1981 he became Ways and Means chairman. Even though Ronald Reagan was president, Rostenkowski forged common ground between the Democrat-controlled Congress and the Republican White House to secure two historic bills: the 1983 measure that saved Social Security from going broke and, three years later, the biggest overhaul of the US federal tax code since the Second World War, that eliminated countless loopholes and created a simpler and more equitable system.

It helped, of course, that Rostenkowski got on very well with Reagan and his successor George HW Bush; Chicago-trained politicians are nothing if not pragmatists who understand the realities of power.

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