Mr. Rostenkowski was educated at St. John’s Academy, a Wisconsin military school, and Loyola University in Chicago. He served in the infantry in Korea from 1946 to 1948. He was a state representative and later a state senator before his election to the U.S. House in 1958.
Mr. Rostenkowski was a pillar of the Chicago Democratic machine, a ward committeeman whose precinct captains were experts at getting out the vote. He once said that in Chicago politics is “a blood sport.”
Until the end, he never faced more than token political opposition.
As Ways and Means chairman, he handled the job in old-school fashion, once telling an Associated Press interviewer that those who crossed him legislatively “should not expect any largesse, so to speak, from me.”
But he believed in compromise and expressed dismay at the partisanship that descended on Capitol Hill after he left. He was fond of closed-door meetings where political dramatics were shelved in favor of deal making.
“We looked at politics as compromise,” Mr. Rostenkowski said. “We were going to work together. We were going to get something done. We were Democrats and Republicans, but we were also legislators. Politics is war today. Everybody wants to fight. Nobody wants to give in.”
“As much as people criticize the back room, the dark room or the cigar or smoke-filled room, you get things done when you’re not acting,” he told an interviewer. In his day, he said, “we’d argue like hell on the floor of the House of Representatives, but we were out playing golf that night.”
He had little use for rules limiting contacts with lobbyists.
“If a congressman is going to be a rascal, he’s going to be a rascal,” Mr. Rostenkowski once told an interviewer.
Mr. Rostenkowski brought in millions of federal dollars to his state for public works projects, including the Kennedy Expressway reconstruction and turning the Navy Pier on Chicago’s downtown lakefront into a recreational area.
As chairman, Mr. Rostenkowski opposed protectionist trade legislation and played a key role in pushing through the North American Free Trade Agreement, which lowered trade barriers between the United States and Canada and Mexico. Never a favorite with liberal groups, Mr. Rostenkowski joined forces with many corporations to win approval of the measure, which was proposed by the Clinton administration but bitterly disliked by organized labor.
Mr. Rostenkowski won praise for driving the 1986 tax overhaul legislation.
In a dramatic gesture designed to focus attention on the issue, he went on national television and urged viewers to write to him with their own views on how the nation’s tax laws could be improved.
He told them that if they had trouble spelling his name, all they had to do was “write Rosty” in Washington.
The bill that President Ronald Reagan finally signed into law eliminated numerous loopholes.