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Dan Rostenkowski, Congressional Dealmaker, Dies at 82

Dan Rostenkowski, a product of the storied Chicago political machine who became one of the most powerful men in Congress, and who was the target of a senior citizens' protest that led to the repeal of Medicare “catastrophic” coverage in 1989, died Wednesday.

Treated for lung cancer recently, he died at his summer home in Lake Benedict, Wis., the Associated Press reported. He was 82.

Rostenkowski, who honed his machine-forged horse-trading credentials to a fine art while heading the powerful House Ways and Means Committee from 1981 until he lost his seat and went to jail on corruption charges in 1994, was a key player in the passage of the catastrophic coverage act. That expansion of Medicare was designed to prevent beneficiaries from confronting massive medical bills in the wake of a serious illness or injury.  But it was funded by a tax only on Medicare recipients, and the taxes kicked in before the benefits, which did not include long-term care. Seniors revolted.

“Rosty,” as he was universally known, became the face of the fracas when, after a hostile town meeting at a Chicago senior center in August 1989, he was chased out of the room by angry participants who shouted “coward,” “recall” and “impeach.” An older woman threw herself on the hood of Rostenkowski’s car to prevent him from leaving. Rostenkowski hightailed it away on foot, as seniors chased him down the street until he was rescued by his driver. The footage was shown repeatedly on television. The law was repealed in November 1989.

The meeting was organized by Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., who at the time was executive director of the Illinois State Council of Senior Citizens, which was opposed to the law. The “chase” however, was spontaneous.

On Wednesday, Schakowsky noted Rostenkowski’s Polish roots in Chicago and his standing up for the little guy. “He and I didn't always agree, but I always admired his effective leadership,” she said in a statement. “My heart goes out to his family, and my hope is that his many accomplishments and his ‘larger than life’ role in the Congress will overshadow and outlive the later problems he faced.”
          
In 1993, Rostenkowski was snared in an investigation of the House postmaster, Robert Rota, who pleaded guilty to helping representatives embezzle money through fraudulent stamp-buying deals. Rostenkowski was indicted on 17 felony counts, including taking $50,000 from the Post Office and keeping “ghost” employees on the House payroll.
        
Though he continued to say he was innocent, he decided to plead guilty to two of the counts, avoided trial, and served 15 months in a federal prison and two in a halfway house. He was later pardoned by President Bill Clinton.
        
The money involved was a pittance compared with what he had accumulated by other means. An anomaly in campaign finance law meant he could have retired in 1992 and taken $1 million he accumulated in a campaign war chest before the new law kicked in. He chose to forfeit the amount and run for reelection. “I’m not going to take the $1 million,” he told a Chicago Tribune reporter at the time. “I would never do that.”

The gruff, jowly, 6-foot-2 lawmaker used guile and street-smarts to garner votes for legislation he championed. The architect of the 1986 income tax reform legislation, he pulled the public into the fray with a “Write Rosty” campaign, encouraging them to send him their opinions. That was for public consumption. Privately, he invited lawmakers into a literal back room (the library off the cavernous Ways and Means Committee hearing room) and bought their votes one by one, often using “transition rules,” or special tax breaks, for their pet interests.

He led the Ways and Means Committee for 14 years and was instrumental, along with former President Ronald Reagan and then-House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, D-Mass., in the 1983 overhaul of Social Security that kept it solvent.

Elaine S. Povich is a veteran congressional correspondent.

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