Mention the words “Chicago-style politics” and the image conjured up probably isn't one of squeaky-clean elected officials or transparent government.
When compromise was allowed
Despite his faults, Rosty knew how to reach out and make a deal
In those respects, the late Rep. Dan Rostenkowski didn’t disappoint.
The longtime Democratic congressman from Chicago died last month at age 82 after a battle with lung cancer. Rostenkowski, or more familiarly known as “Rosty”—especially for headline purposes—was a member of Congress for nearly four decades, holding the chairmanship of the powerful tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee from 1981 to 1994.
For many observers, however, especially his detractors from both parties, it was the time served at another institution that ultimately defined Rostenkowski—his 17-month sentence to a federal prison in Wisconsin on charges that included embezzlement and fraud while in office. The amounts involved were hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Obituaries offering retrospectives on “The Chairman” offered plenty of commentary on his public life, including words such as “felon,” “hack” and “bully.” But others focused on his commitment to constituents and his encyclopedic knowledge of Capitol Hill, noting another description of the man: “Lion of the legislature.”
One overarching narrative in the post-mortems was this: The man got things done. He knew how to compromise, arm-twist and work across the aisle, even with polar-opposite presidents, to get legislation enacted. Imagine that.
Accomplishments included working with fellow legislators and President Ronald Reagan to rewrite the tax code in 1986 and again in the 1993 deficit-reduction package signed by President Bill Clinton. The latter is credited with reversing soaring annual budget deficits and ever-so-briefly leading to surpluses for the U.S. Treasury.
Rostenkowski also played a key role in enacting another famous piece of legislation, especially in this industry: the short-lived Medicare Catastrophic Coverage Act of 1988. Briefly, the legislation was designed to cover financially crushing healthcare expenses for all Medicare beneficiaries and was to be financed by a tax on all beneficiaries, including many who were already protected against such catastrophic costs by the generous insurance coverage provided by their former employers.
It was a tax on seniors and seniors only, and they were enraged. Some of those protests made last year’s raucous town-hall confrontations over healthcare reform look like Sunday morning at church. An iconic video of an angry mob of seniors chasing Rostenkowski down a Chicago street and encircling his car is still easily found on the Internet.
The backlash worked and the law was repealed in late 1989.
Apparently, Democrats learned some lessons from the Catastrophic Coverage Act as they crafted the reform package that was signed into law by President Barack Obama back in March. No seniors-only taxes. In fact, for weeks now seniors have been getting small checks in the mail through the reform law’s down payment on closing the “doughnut hole” in the Medicare prescription drug benefit.
Of course, it remains to be seen how the reform package holds up in the years ahead. The “repeal and replace” crowd is as vocal as ever, and “Red States” continue to fight the law on as many fronts as they can. But it won’t be so easy to peel back the law because this time around there are plenty of supporters who see it as a solid first step toward a better system.
Nobody says the reform law is perfect, and some provisions will certainly be revisited by future congresses. As has been stated on this page before, when that happens it would be nice to see a bipartisan approach. Maybe with some compromise, dealmaking and a little arm-twisting, if necessary.
It might require Rosty’s ghost to make any of that happen.
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