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Ornstein: Rostenkowski and Stevens Were Master Lawmakers

To any veteran of Washington, D.C., and especially to those of us who have spent years immersed in the politics of Capitol Hill, last week was a striking and sad one.

Lyndon Johnson used to refer to the makeup of the Senate as “whales and minnows.” Two of the real whales of Congress over the past half-century, Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska and Rep. Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois, died on back-to-back days, one in a plane crash and the other of natural causes.

One was a Republican, the other a Democrat. One was relatively diminutive, the other was a physical giant. One was both ornery and rather shy, the other reveled in backslapping male bonding and bonhomie. Both had a huge effect on the nation.

[IMGCAP(1)]One of the pleasures of spending four decades around the House and Senate has been the chance to get to know professionally and socially many of the leaders and rank-and-file Members. I knew Stevens and Rostenkowski pretty well during their times in Congress (and saw and corresponded with Rosty after he left the Hill and his time in prison). Stevens, as the many reports since his death have suggested, was a tough guy to get close to. His self-description — “I’m a mean, miserable SOB” — was pretty accurate. But he also was down-to-earth, honest, dedicated to his wife and family, and refreshingly candid. I was fortunate never to be at the wrong end of one of his famous eruptions, but I played on the opposite side of the tennis net from him several times and saw, shall we say, an intense competitor.

Stevens loved Alaska; a passion for it and a drive to use every bit of leverage that he had in the Senate to protect and enhance its interests as he saw them was his essence — and that meant playing the hardest of hardball, threatening (and sometimes taking) revenge on anybody who crossed him in that goal and using every lever of power available to him as a senior lawmaker to win. And of course, he had stunning success at expanding Alaska’s economic development and steering federal dollars to the low-population, remote state. Watching Stevens at work could make one wince but also admire his drive and skill. He was partisan but developed close bonds with key Democrats, especially his comrade-in-arms Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, and never let partisanship get in the way of his policy aims.

Rostenkowski was larger than life in every way, with a zest for life and a love of politics. He was a classic, old-school committee chairman and classic, old-school politician. He protected his turf on the Ways and Means Committee with toughness and tenacity, often driving the more gentlemanly and intellectual Speaker Tom Foley (D-Wash.) to distraction. He wielded his gavel imperiously, often frustrating the more gentlemanly and intellectual ranking members, Barber Conable (N.Y.) and Bill Gradison (Ohio), with his frequent unwillingness to incorporate their ideas, no matter how reasonable, into tax or health legislation if he had the votes on the Democratic side alone. He knew power, had power and used power. But Rosty also looked for ways to create personal and policy bonds on the committee, including through the innovation of having committee-wide retreats on key policy issues, taking the Members away for a weekend to meet together and with some experts to hash over tax reform, trade policy health or welfare reform.

Rosty loved people, Congress and politics. To have dinner with him — in a smoky restaurant, with huge steaks and lots of wine, as he spun delicious war stories about Chicago pols and Congressional buddies and enemies, policy triumphs and setbacks — was an unmitigated (except for the smoke) joy. He built strong relationships with George H.W. Bush from his brief time on Ways and Means, and with Ronald Reagan when tax reform came to the fore in 1986. That reform — the most sweeping change in the tax system in decades, and the most stunning achievement of a second-term president in our lifetime — would not have happened without Rostenkowski, without his relationships with Bush and Reagan, and without his zeal to find a deal and his desire to make something happen for the good of the nation.

Stevens and Rostenkowski ended their legislative careers in ignominious fashion, each caught up in petty corruption that reflected a combination of a sense of entitlement that came from long public service while many of their peers left for multiples of their Congressional pay, an inability to change their own ethical standards as the nation’s shifted and the arrogance of power. I won’t miss that part. But I will miss two master legislators who knew politics and the art of the deal, who tried to make a better nation for their constituents and the rest of us, working regularly across party lines to accomplish those goals, and who understood that politics is the essence of policymaking in a democracy. They were far from perfect, but a damn sight better than the self-righteous ideologues and hyperambitious loudmouths who make up too many of today’s best-known lawmakers.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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