Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Dan Rostenkowski, 1928-2010. R.I.P.

Former Democratic Congressman Dan Rostenkowski has died. The cause of death is unknown as of this writing. He was 82.

First elected to Congress in 1958, Rostenkowski became one of the most powerful Democrats in the House of Representatives. In 1981, the Chicago Democrat would be elected the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. There was a time when this position was as powerful as that of the Speaker of the House or even the President. In was in this capacity that Rostenkowski became a key figure in the passage of the Tax Reform Act of 1986 signed into law by President Reagan.

But it was his use of that same office that would prove to be his undoing as he became the central figure in the Congressional Post Office scandal that would result in a 17-count indictment against him in 1994. A lightning rod for Newt Gingrich and the GOP during the run up to that year's mid-term elections, Rostenkowski would resign from the Ways and Means Committee and would be among 34 incumbent Democrats defeated in an election which saw Republicans regain control of the House for the first time in four decades.

Rostenkowski would lose his seat to a 32-year-old Gulf War veteran named Michael Patrick Flanagan. However, Flanagan's tenure in Congress was shortlived as the Democratic Party machine regained the seat in the 1996 elections. Flanagan was defeated by a lawyer named Rod Blagojevich. Need I say more other than Blago would be succeeded by none other than Rahm Emmanuel.

Rostenkowski would plead guilty on two counts of mail fraud in 1996 and was sentenced to 17 months in federal prison. In 2000, President Clinton granted Rostenkowski a pardon.

With Rostenkowski's passing coming less than 48 hours after the untimely death of former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens I am struck by how much the two men had in common. Although they were from different parties and represented vastly different constituencies they both earned reputations for being able to bring home the bacon. Both men were re-elected time and again (Rostenkowski served in Congress for 36 years, Stevens in the Senate for 40). Both men also lost their seats after being indicted on corruption related charges.

However, the two men would ultimately have two different fates their fates were determined by one man - Eric Holder. Although Stevens was convicted at trial when evidence of prosecutorial misconduct emerged it was Holder who moved to void the convictions and drop all charges against Stevens. Conversely, it was Holder who was the lead prosecutor in the Rostenkowski case.

Last month, Richard E. Cohen (not to be confused with Richard M. Cohen of The Washington Post) wrote an article about Charlie Rangel, yet another former Ways and Means Committee Chairman who went wayward. Cohen, who had written a biography of Rostenkowski, mentions him prominently in the article.

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