William V. Roth Jr., a fighter for tax cuts during his five terms in the U.S. Senate and the creator of the popular retirement account known as the Roth IRA, has died. He was 82.
Roth collapsed late Saturday at his daughter’s house in Washington, D.C., said U.S. Sen. Joseph Biden, who was notified early Sunday.
“It’s a sad day for Delaware,” said Biden (D-Del). “This was one of the truly great figures in Delaware politics.”
Roth was a relentless champion of tax cuts during his time in Washington and also oversaw high-profile inquiries into both alleged taxpayer abuses by the Internal Revenue Service and Pentagon overspending that uncovered the infamous $9,600 wrench and $640 toilet seat.
The Republican was the co-author of the 1981 Kemp-Roth tax-cut legislation, but he was best known as the creator of the Roth individual retirement account, or Roth IRA, in 1997.
As head of the Senate’s permanent subcommittee on investigations, Roth in 1996 looked into charges of financial waste in the construction of the federally financed Los Angeles Metro Rail Red Line subway system. He also won praise in California, including that of the state’s Democratic Sen. Diane Feinstein, for his support of the 1994 California Desert Protection Act.
A private man, Roth took Amtrak trains back and forth between Washington and Delaware. Always looking out for the interests of his constituents, he recognized Amtrak as a major commuter system for Delaware residents and worked steadily for federal subsidies to shore up the troubled train system.
Roth was a native of Montana but became a political icon in his adopted state of Delaware after moving there in 1954 as a lawyer for a chemical firm. Before he lost the race in 2000 for a sixth term in the U.S. Senate, he was one of the longest-tenured politicians in Delaware’s history and the state’s longest-serving U.S. senator.
During World War II, he served in an Army intelligence unit in the Pacific theater, eventually receiving the Bronze Star for meritorious conduct. He attended Harvard Law School after the war.
Once established in Delaware, he quickly became active in Republican politics, and, after narrowly losing a 1960 bid for lieutenant governor, became state GOP chairman.
Roth won his first seat in Congress in 1966, when he defeated Democratic U.S. Rep. Harris B. McDowell Jr. in an upset. He served two terms in the House before taking over the Senate seat vacated by Sen. John J. Williams, a Republican.
One of his first acts in Congress was to comb through the government agencies that provide grants, small business loans and other money. He finished with what became known as the “Roth Catalog,” originally published in the Congressional Record in 1968, a guide now updated annually as “The Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance.”
In 1981, early in his Senate career, Roth joined then-Rep. Jack Kemp to usher in a sweeping tax cut that conservatives hailed as the spark for the robust economy of the 1990s but critics blamed for the spiraling national deficits under President Reagan.
In 1983, as chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, Roth helped to expose wasteful defense spending, drawing attention to overpriced spare parts by decorating a Christmas tree with screws, nuts and wrenches. The total price tag was $101,000.
“It costs us $110 to buy the same parts at local hardware stores and supply houses,” Roth said at the time.
A longtime chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, Roth nevertheless remained only a middle-rank politician until 1995 when he was named chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee.
Roth soon focused his attention on the tax collectors, leading a series of high-profile congressional hearings into the workings of the Internal Revenue Service.
“The agency as a whole does not enjoy the confidence of the American public,” Roth told The Times in 1997 when he was spearheading the IRS investigation. “It is looked upon too often as being abusive and having practices that are not fair and equitable.”
He told The Times that the IRS had developed a culture that led to overzealous enforcement of tax laws and the perception by some IRS agents “that they are God.”
Although Roth insists that his inquiry reined in an agency out of control, the hearings were ultimately unable to substantiate any specific claims of abuse by IRS workers. He later wrote a 1999 book, “The Power to Destroy,” a look at the IRS.
Roth’s crowning legislative achievement was the creation of the Roth IRA, an individual retirement account that allows people to invest taxable income that can be withdrawn tax-free in retirement.
Despite his achievements in the Senate and 99% name recognition among voters, Delaware sent Roth into retirement in 2000 by giving former Gov. Tom Carper an overwhelming victory in what was considered a battle of Delaware titans. At the time, Roth was 79, the third-oldest member of the Senate.
He frequently referred to his veteran status -- and his seat as chairman of the Finance Committee -- during the 2000 election.
“Who says I’m too old?,” Roth said then. “I have achieved the seniority in the U.S. Senate that makes Delaware’s voice heard, and even more importantly, listened to.”
Carper avoided making Roth’s age a direct part of his own campaign, but the incumbent senator had health problems that, coupled with Carper’s energetic campaign style and a surge in Democratic enrollment, gave the Democrat an election day victory of more than 11 percentage points.
At least twice during the campaign, Roth publicly collapsed, once in front of rolling TV cameras. His campaign blamed the falls on an inner ear problem that caused vertigo.
Information on survivors was unavailable. Roth and his wife, the former Jane Richards, had two children and two grandchildren.