CHICAGO | Former Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, the Chicago Democrat who became the leading architect of congressional tax policy in the Reagan era but later went to federal prison for corruption, died Wednesday, a family friend said. He was 82.
Mr. Rostenkowski, who served 18 terms before losing in 1994, died surrounded by family at his home in Lake Benedict, Wis., said friend Ellen Tully. He had been treated for prostate cancer in the 1990s.
As chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, Mr. Rostenkowski was known as a consensus builder and a master of legislative tactics. He is credited with leading a 1983 effort to rescue Social Security from insolvency and pushing through a sweeping 1986 overhaul of the nation’s tax system.
But the Democratic lawmaker himself acknowledged that his legacy would always be tainted by his stint in federal prison.
“I know that my obituary will say, ‘Dan Rostenkowski, felon,’ and it is something that I have to live with,”’ he said in a 1998 broadcast interview with Robert Novak and Mark Shields.
In 2000, however, President Clinton pardoned Mr. Rostenkowski. Two prominent Republicans, former President Gerald R. Ford and former House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel, were among those urging the pardon.
Mr. Rostenkowski’s problems began in 1992 when a grand jury in Washington charged him with 17 counts of misusing government and campaign funds.
The scandal forced him to step down as chairman and led to his 1994 defeat by Republican unknown Michael Patrick Flanagan, who became the first GOP congressman from Chicago in 35 years.
In the end, Mr. Rostenkowski pleaded guilty to two counts of mail fraud. He admitted in his plea agreement that he had converted office funds to his own use for gifts such as Lenox china and armchairs.
He admitted hiring people on his congressional payroll who did little or no official work but took care of his lawn, took photographs at political events and family weddings, helped his family’s business and supervised the renovation of his house.
Rep. Danny K. Davis of Chicago called Mr. Rostenkowski “larger than life in terms of his own being.”
“He goes down in history as one of the powerful chairmen of the Ways and Means Committee and, of course, the people of Illinois remember him with tremendous fondness as a key element of the political landscape in our state,” Mr. Davis, Illinois Democrat, said Wednesday.
Daniel David Rostenkowski was born Jan. 2, 1928, into one of Chicago’s leading Polish-American political families. His father was an alderman.
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 House of Representatives in 1958.
Mr. Rostenkowski was a pillar of the Chicago Democratic machine - a ward committeeman whose precinct captains were expert at getting out the vote. He once said that in Chicago politics is “a blood sport.”
As Ways and Means chairman, he handled the job in old-school fashion, once telling an 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.
“We looked at politics as compromise,” he recalled. “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 said.
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