Rostenkowski's Last Stand
In the House Longworth office building's most mammoth hearing room hangs a handsome portrait of a young Dan Rostenkowski--the Chicago alderman's son, grinning like a man who understands he has finally climbed the political Matterhorn. It was 1981, and he had just become the chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. The start was shaky: He first presided over an unseemly bidding war for goodies in Ronald Reagan's tax-cut bill. After that, he vowed to never again lose control of his committee. Rosty kept his word through tax reform, assorted tax bills, even the North American Free Trade Agreement. On health care, his motto is the same. "When I put you on this committee, you all whispered in my ear that you would take the tough votes," he told his Democrats recently at a closed-door caucus. "Well, the tough votes are here."
But as Rostenkowski chaired his panel's first public session on health reform last week, his deeply lined face and constant grimace betrayed more than a worry about straying Democrats. After a two-year legal battle stemming from the House post office scandal, it seemed last week that the chairman would soon have to give up his job. The Illinois Democrat's resignation from Congress could be an important part of any deal struck with the Justice Department to avoid jail time. And so the White House now finds itself squirming, its major domestic policy initiative stuck on the question of whether a key Democratic player will become an indicted felon.
Simple formula. House leaders worry about a world without Rosty, and with good reason. If next-in-line Sam Gibbons of Florida takes over, House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt could well become the shadow chairman. That might work, but maybe not. Rosty is among the last of a breed of congressional leaders who demand--and receive--something rare in modern politics: loyalty. Consider that despite his massive legal problems, he has not lost sway with his committee. The formula is simple enough: Handpick committee members, then listen to what they want. A chairman, Rosty often says, has very little power that doesn't come from his troops. Yet he leads with a warning: You will live or die on the record of this committee. In a Congress that has become atomistic, no one on Ways and Means is a freelancer.
The chairman gives nothing away for free. Even when House Speaker Tip O'Neill wanted goodies in a tax bill, he applied like everyone else. Rosty would read the list to his friend and say, "Tip, I'm doing this for you. Remember." No one has ever called Rostenkowski a nurturer. He is gruff, often rude. If you betray him, he does not forget. In 1981, Democrat Kent Hance co-sponsored a Republican tax plan; he became a nonperson in nanoseconds. No slight was too small: When the group traveled by bus for a hearing, members were assigned seats up front; Hance had to sit next to the bathroom. "Sometimes he reminds me of my eighth grade line coach," smiles committee Democrat Mike Andrews of Texas. "There's that remark about Vince Lombardi: He treats us all the same. Like dogs."