Illinois Rep. Dan Rostenkowski Cut the Deals in Congress That May Cut Your Taxes

updated 09/01/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/01/1986 01:00AM

Democratic Rep. Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois, a 6'2", 225-pound side of Midwestern beef, can fairly sizzle over his battle for tax reform—his thick-boned mitts, the size of five-pound sirloins, swinging in the air before him. The chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee is recalling that discouraging night a year ago when he left the House chambers, trudged back to the "junkyard," as he calls his weekday bachelor pad near Capitol Hill, sat right down and wrote himself a seven-page letter. "I was walking in this valley. I mean, nobody thought we were gonna get a tax bill out," he says in his gravelly baritone. "It was agony trying to get a consensus. Well, I figured, 'Boy, oh, boy, I'm gonna write this down, so that if ever in the future I think I want to revisit writing a tax bill on this magnitude, I'll never do it again.' "

If all goes as expected in Congress this fall, he won't have to. He and his Senate counterpart, Finance Committee Chairman Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) recently emerged from an unusual series of one-on-one bargaining sessions with a compromise between the House and Senate versions of tax reform that should pass the full Congress for signing by President Reagan. It would be the most sweeping overhaul of the nation's tax laws in 40 years.

It is nearly the end of a 16-month slog for Rostenkowski, 58, who made tax reform a test of his leadership and, in the process, saw his political reputation blossom. Championing the interests of middle-income taxpayers, he blustered, cajoled and finally cut a few personal deals to get his colleagues to back his cause. Once considered no more than an ordinary machine politician from Chicago wards, he has lately been hailed as the "master dealer," a "consummate negotiator" and (in the New York Times) "a most important man on Capitol Hill."

Buoyed by that success, Rostenkowski may even attempt to challenge heavily favored House Majority Leader Jim Wright (D-Texas) to succeed Rostenkowski's close friend Tip O'Neill as Speaker of the House. Rostenkowski's armor was hardly tarnished by a report last week detailing how he set up a blind trust with $200 in 1980 that eventually yielded $66,000. He contends that he never attempted to hide fat profits and established the trust to shield himself from potential charges that he favored special interests. There is talk that someday he may return to his beloved hometown, Chicago, and take over as mayor, the former power seat of his political mentor, Richard Daley. For now, Rostenkowski is sniffing victory in a struggle no one was supposed to win. "If we pass this all-encompassing tax-reform bill," he says, "it will be the hallmark of my career."

He probably means to say capstone. Solecisms and malapropisms area hallmark of Rostenkowski's 28 years in Congress. Telling the press of his trepidation over the approaching tax reform fight, for instance, he fretted, "I'm walking in an egg field." For all his newfound national prestige, Rostenkowski remains "Rosty," the ethnic street pol whose heart belongs to "the old neighborhood" of Chicago's 32nd Ward. He tends to avoid Washington's elite social circles, spending whatever spare time he has during the week with old buddies. He never entertains at his apartment, where, he says, "the stove has never been turned on, and the refrigerator has nothing in it but grapefruit juice, six-packs of beer and my vitamins." He lives in his office, which contains, among other mementos, a framed gavel that he smashed in 1967 while chairing a boisterous debate and an 11-foot pole, just in case anyone tries to say, "I wouldn't touch that with a...."

That was the way most of Rostenkowski's colleagues reacted to the prospect of tax reform, but as boss of Ways and Means, it was Rosty's job to bring them around. "It kills me," he says of the necessary number-crunching. "The technical area of Ways and Means is a desk job, as opposed to being a legislator on the floor. That's a sales job. I enjoyed that much more. It didn't take as much concentration. It was free-swinging, if you're a gregarious kind of guy like me. If you can just study people and know their frailties, you can pretty much drive it through."

Rostenkowski avoided studying tax details. "He doesn't take the tax code to bed with him at night," says Ways and Means spokesman John Sherman. "When it comes to moving tax legislation, he'll tell 75 pointy-headed technicians to go dream up five options." But then Rosty would use his touch to get one of them accepted.

Rostenkowski learned his political style at the knee of his father, Joseph, an alderman and ward committeeman for 20 years. A 14-letter man in baseball, football, basketball and track at St. John's Military Academy in Delafield, Wis., Rostenkowski was angling for a career in professional baseball when he returned in 1948 from service as a Gl in Korea. His father persuaded him to attend Chicago's Loyola University at night (he graduated with a business degree in 1951) while working days as an insurance claims inspector. Meanwhile Mayor Daley tapped him to run for office. At 24, he became the youngest member elected to the Illinois House and, at 26, the youngest to the state Senate. He remained close to Mayor Daley after going to Washington. "Every Friday," recalls attorney William M. Daley, the youngest of the Mayor's seven children, "he'd come in and update my father on the events and issues that concerned the city of Chicago—the political game. My dad always introduced him as the future Speaker of the House."

Rosty still lives in the same three-story, red-brick house where he was born and raised; it was built by his Polish immigrant grandfather, a businessman, across the street from St. Stanislaus Kostka Roman Catholic Church, which overlooks Pulaski Park on Chicago's northwest side. During his early days in Congress, Rosty and an aide would make the 11½-hour drive from Washington to Chicago overnight in a station wagon, taking turns napping on a mattress in the back. He has missed only 11 weekends with his family in 28 years. He and his wife, LaVerne, have four daughters: Dawn, 34, who is single, and Gayle, 29, who is married, are flight attendants. Kristie, 33, also married, is a secretary for U.S. Sen. Alan Dixon in Chicago. Stacy, 26, who has recovered from a kidney transplant last December, is single and also a flight attendant.

Now that the children have grown, LaVerne has been urging her husband to retire, but he fears restlessness. He's already disrupted the household by having his license suspended for a year after a drunken driving conviction this June. He complains, "Now I've got to say to one of my kids, 'Come on, drive me into town,' and they'll say, 'Oh, Dad!' and then do it. Drives me crazy."

The tax reform naysayers were even more exasperating, but Rostenkowski persevered, convinced he was fighting for middle-class taxpayers like his own daughters. "They take home a check, so I think we should give them an opportunity to decide how to spend the money," he says. "At least if kids are growing up exposed to the opportunity to save, maybe it's a disease that will stay with them, and they may become addicted to trying to save money, as opposed to living on plastic." That's tax reform as Rosty sees it: a good old-fashioned idea whose time has come.

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