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Rosty’s World : Rep. Dan Rostenkowski Runs the House Ways and Means Panel With an Iron Fist

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This is a story about whether your federal taxes will go up this fall, about congressional shadow boxing in Washington, Democratic presidential ambitions and Chicago-style politics.

But most important, this is a story about how all of those things converge in the person of one wily old pol, a huge, blustery, Chicago kind of guy named Dan Rostenkowski.

The bigger-than-life chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Rostenkowski--"Rosty” to his friends and his enemies--is one of the most powerful men in Congress. The 63-year-old Illinois Democrat controls the tax-writing process in the House, and, as Congress came back into session earlier this month, he was telling everybody who will listen that he is dead set against writing any big new taxes.

Because Ways and Means is where taxes go to get raised, and because Rostenkowski runs Ways and Means with an iron fist, his swearing off a tax bill should pretty much kill it, right?

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Yeah, well, he is from Chicago, remember. Where politics is as clear as mud.

So look a little closer. You will see that Rostenkowski’s Ways and Means voted for a 5-cent-a-gallon increase in the federal gasoline tax this summer. Look even closer, and you will see that Ways and Means plans to hold hearings this fall on sweeping Democratic tax legislation to whack the rich with much higher taxes--ostensibly to ease the tax burden on the middle class.

But all of that sound and fury in the bowels of Ways and Means, Rostenkowski insists, is just his way of making sure that Congress doesn’t do anything at all on taxes.

“I don’t want a tax bill,” he says. “And everything I’m doing,” he notes somewhat cryptically, “is going according to my plan.”

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Adds a Rosty aide: “We’re doing all of this to make sure there isn’t a tax bill.”

Confused?

You’re in Rosty’s World. It’s where Dan Rostenkowski makes the rules.

In his rare, wistful moments, Dan Rostenkowski may still rue the day a decade ago when he passed up his big chance of ever becoming House majority leader or Speaker of the House.

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But today, after 10 years at the helm of Ways and Means--arguably the most important committee in Congress--lobbyists and other observers believe that Rosty’s influence over the back channels of power in Washington is such that a mere leadership post would now represent a demotion.

Rosty is Congress’s No. 1 money man, the lawmaker who has the most control over the federal purse strings. And, just like Hollywood, Washington runs more on cash than on ideas.

What is really big news today is the extent to which Rostenkowski’s power over the federal purse has quietly but dramatically been expanded this year. In fact, Rosty could now be rightly called America’s tax and budget czar--much to the chagrin of almost everyone else in Congress.

He has last fall’s controversial budget agreement to thank for that. It gave him unprecedented control over how and where funds will be flowing in or out of Washington’s massive coffers. Predictably, the budget accord was structured along lines developed by Rostenkowski and his staff.

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“It is undeniable that his power has been enhanced” by the budget agreement, observes Joseph Dowley, a Washington attorney and a former top aide to Rostenkowski.

Under the new budget accord, almost every new spending initiative that Congress approves must be offset by spending cuts elsewhere or by hiking taxes or other fees. That means that for the first time, virtually every new program in government, from welfare to highway construction, must go through Ways and Means--and Rosty.

Others in Congress who had only a hazy understanding of the workings of the budget pact when they voted for it last year are just now realizing the implications of the new accord in consolidating Rostenkowski’s power.

“You don’t think that was an accident, do you?” Rostenkowski says with a laugh.

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Clearly, he has a vested interest in maintaining the budget status quo--and his new powers. Unfortunately, that puts him directly at odds with almost everyone else in the Democratic Party, especially those few hardy souls who want to run for President.

In fact, as Congress returned from its summer recess Sept. 10, Rosty’s budget accord was facing fresh challenges from Democratic presidential candidates like Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, who is pushing to reopen the budget to allow for an increase in aid to the Soviet Union and a sharp decline in Pentagon spending.

“I don’t think we should be using the legislative process to develop a platform for the 1992 convention,” Rostenkowski says.

But those kind of comments have led many in the party to charge that Rostenkowski is standing in the way of Democrats who want to paint President Bush as the defender of the rich and the oppressor of the middle class.

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Some critics even whisper that Rosty’s longstanding friendship with Bush--dating back to the 1960s, when they were on Ways and Means together--has sapped his partisan spirit.

In fact, aides acknowledge that Rostenkowski prefers having a Republican in the White House; that way, he and other congressional Democrats don’t have to take orders from their party’s leader down the street.

Others charge that Rostenkowski is more interested in the perks of power than in doing good--that he is fat and happy thanks to the abundant kindness of strangers who have made him a champion in garnering campaign contributions and speaking fees from special interests. Now, he is constantly chided by public-interest groups for being the No. 1 frequent flyer in Congress, always hopping on corporate or government jets to far-flung resorts to play golf with industry lobbyists.

Rosty not a good Democrat, not a man of the people?

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Hard to figure for an old Chicago politician born and bred in the Democratic machine run by Hizzoner himself, the late Mayor Richard Daley. Harder still when you think he’s a father of four who still lives in the same modest house that his Polish immigrant grandfather built on the north side of Chicago, near his family’s old church in a neighborhood that is rapidly changing from Polish to Latino.

Clearly, Dan Rostenkowski is complicated.

He’s a huge man, maybe 6-foot-5, with enormous hands and the shoulders of a linebacker, and he once had a shot at a professional baseball career. The son of a Chicago city councilman and ward boss, Rostenkowski had a tryout with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1949 before his father called him home to finish school.

Before long, Rostenkowski was in the family business--Chicago politics. And, with his father’s help, he became a favored protege of Mayor Daley.

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After stints in both the Illinois state House and Senate, Rostenkowski was ordered back to Chicago by Daley to run for a more important city or county office. Instead, in 1958 Rosty convinced Daley to let him run for Congress--which until then Daley had viewed as a political backwater where he sent older machine pols out to pasture.

But Rostenkowski convinced Daley that Chicago was missing out, that its machine should follow the example of the Southern Democrats: Elect young men to safe congressional seats and then keep them there until they gained enough seniority to rule Washington. It was a strategy that had helped the South stave off federal attacks against segregation for generations, and it was one that Rostenkowski was convinced could get Chicago what it wanted, too.

His strategy worked. Dan Rostenkowski won, went to Washington as the youngest member of Congress in 1959--and stayed.

And he became Daley’s eyes and ears in Washington, a loyal soldier who commuted home to Chicago every single weekend to see his wife, LaVerne, and the kids--but, more important, his mayor. Every Friday, without fail, Rostenkowski would make his weekly pilgrimage to City Hall, to tell the mayor what was happening in Congress--and to get his marching orders. (He still commutes even today; after all his years in Congress, Rostenkowski has only spent about a dozen weekends in Washington.)

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In the early days he would drive back and forth, but that didn’t last long. Soon, Washington figured out he was Daley’s main man in Congress, and he was jetting back and forth, sometimes on Air Force One, bringing home the bacon as he acted as Lyndon B. Johnson’s guide through the labyrinth of Chicago politics.

But it wasn’t until Daley died in 1976 that Rostenkowski was able to emerge from his shadow and develop a reputation in Congress for something more than Chicago’s prime provider of Washington pork.

Daley’s death brought on a quick succession of mayors who didn’t get along with Rostenkowski. After briefly toying with the idea of running for mayor himself, Rosty decided instead to broaden his role in Congress.

But as the new chairman of Ways and Means, Rostenkowski got steamrollered by Ronald Reagan during the 1981 tax-cutting frenzy, and critics charged he was in over his head.

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To compensate, Rostenkowski gradually began to adapt his Chicago-style personal politics to the arcane world of the federal tax code. Hand-picking new members of Ways and Means and key staffers, Rosty gained an iron grip over the committee. And, unlike other committee chairmen, he has worked hard to make sure that his panel’s subcommittees don’t dilute his power.

“All of the staffers on his subcommittees know that they work for him and nobody else,” one source says.

A master vote counter, Rostenkowski also works hard to build support within the committee by holding frequent caucuses and retreats away from Washington, where he can twist arms and bend wills--and even thrash over issues--in private. Rostenkowski rarely holds pointless public hearings and almost never agrees to push legislation unless he thinks he can win.

“He thinks it is a waste of time to posture,” says Washington lobbyist Michael Bromberg. “He is very good at smelling a consensus. So when he stakes out a position, you better get out of the way.”

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But ironically, Rosty’s enhanced power comes just as his career is winding down.

Speculation has been building all year over whether he will retire next year--especially since he could personally cash in on more than $1 million in campaign contributions if he leaves in 1992. Under a grandfather clause in House campaign finance rules, Rostenkowski and other members who were in Congress before 1980 can keep any donations they received through 1989 if they retire before January, 1993.

What’s more, if he stays on, Rostenkowski will have to deal with redistricting in his next election, when Illinois will lose two congressional seats. After the new district lines are drawn, he is almost certain to be thrown into the same district with another senior Democrat, Rep. Frank Annunzio (D-Ill.)

But his senior aides doubt that Rosty is ready to cash in.

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“I don’t think he wants to be remembered for retiring just to take the money,” says one. “He has a lot of pride.”

Added pressure for him to stay also may be coming from the White House. Bush, fearful of losing a key ally on tax and budget issues, reportedly has asked Rostenkowski not to retire.

So Rosty may want to stay to try to groom his heir apparent at Ways and Means, Rep. Marty Russo (D-Ill.), another product of Chicago politics.

But even with all of his power, Rostenkowski still seems frustrated by the new Congress, and with Democrats who aren’t willing to pay their dues and work their way up the way he did.

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And often he appears to think he is the only obstacle standing in the way of a renewed burst of uncontrolled and destructive federal spending.

“If this country is going to move, we need more people like me,” Rostenkowski says matter-of-factly.


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