Louise Slaughter Dead at 88 After More Than Three Trailblazing Decades in Congress

New York Democrat fell and suffered concussion at D.C. residence last week

New York Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, who became the first chairwoman of the House Rules Committee in 2007, has died. In this July 2014 photo with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Slaughter and other members appear at a press conference following the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
New York Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, who became the first chairwoman of the House Rules Committee in 2007, has died. In this July 2014 photo with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Slaughter and other members appear at a press conference following the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 16, 2018 at 10:31am

Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, the first woman to chair the House Rules Committee, died early Friday after falling at her Washington home last week. She was 88 years old.

Her office said the New York Democrat died at George Washington University Hospital, where she was being treated. The 16-term lawmaker was the oldest sitting member of Congress.

Slaughter, first elected to the House in 1986, was a trailblazer in a chamber long dominated by men. She mentored female lawmakers, pushed for the Violence Against Women Act and was a founding member of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus.

As one of the most senior women in the House, Slaughter cut a unique figure in the institution as a scientist, a Southern-accented upstate New Yorker, and a fierce partisan whose charm and glinty one-liners cut tension during sensitive debates over a range of issues, be they health care, war powers, trade or taxes. 

Watch: Remembering a Life — Louise M. Slaughter

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She took the Rules Committee gavel in 2007, and served as the panel’s ranking member after Republicans regained control of the House four years later. Decrying GOP control of floor debate last year, she said the current body was “well on its way to becoming the most closed Congress in history.”

As Rules chairwoman, Slaughter played an immense role in dictating terms of debate on the House floor. She earned a reputation as a staunch partisan, helping Democrats pass several major pieces of legislation with virtually no support from Republicans.

She also brought a warmth and sprightly sense of humor to what could be grueling debates, and while she was never afraid to mix it up with her GOP colleagues, respect and affection went both ways. 

During a particularly long Rules hearing in November, Slaughter had a little fun at Texas GOP Rep. Joe L. Barton’s expense.

Barton had pointed out the many Texans in the room, such as himself, Chairman Pete Sessions and Michael C. Burgess, all Republicans, as well as Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee. Then he mentioned what he thought was a long-settled fact, that Slaughter was a daughter of El Paso. 

The Rules ranking member, actually born in Harlan County, Kentucky, laughed heartily and corrected him. 

“Joe, bless your sweet heart. I made everyone promise … because you’ve been so nice,” Slaughter said.

“Hold on, I thought you were a Wildcat,” Sessions said.

Slaughter continued, “I was actually born in Kentucky.”

“I thought you were born in El Paso,” Barton said.

“I brought in my rhubarb pie if they promised they wouldn’t tell you, and I see they didn’t,” she said as laughter erupted in the room. “But you know something? I appreciate all those years that you thought I was a Texan. Thank you for that.”

Watch: Joe Barton Learns Louise Slaughter Isn’t a Texan

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As the news of Slaughter’s death came out Friday morning, the rhubarb pie was still on Sessions’ mind.  

“She was a force to be reckoned with who always brought her spunk, fire, and dynamic leadership to every meeting. Louise was a fearless leader, deeply committed to her constituents, and a dear friend. I have had the immense privilege of working side by side with her for the past 20 years. I will always cherish our friendship, comradery, and of course her rhubarb pie. Although we sat on different sides of the aisle, I have always considered her a partner and have the utmost respect for her,” the Texas Republican said in a statement. 

The pie was kind of a thing. Back in 2013, when the topic of his relationship with Slaughter came up during an interview, Sessions said, “I believe that Louise and I sincerely have a good understanding about what her role was and what my role is, and I respect the heck out of her. And I know she knows I want to work with her. I’ll even show up down at her office to meet with her … [and] she brought a pie up here to us. Notwithstanding she’s married [and] I am too, we like each other.”

Slaughter, chairwoman of the Rules Committee, and ranking member David Dreier, R-Calif., conduct a meeting to consider a technical fix to the health care reconciliation bill in March 25, 2010. (CQ Roll Call file photo)
Slaughter, as Rules chairwoman, and ranking member David Dreier conduct a March 2010 meeting to consider a technical fix to the health care bill. (CQ Roll Call file photo)

Before Sessions became the top Republican on Rules, Slaughter had a similarly friendly antagonism with California Republican David Dreier, who served as chairman from 1999 to 2007, ranking member from 2007 to 2011 and chairman again from 2011 to 2013. That added up to a lot of time in the cramped committee hearing room on the third floor of the Capitol. 

“Louise was a relentless and tireless fighter. In a late night Rules Committee meeting she told me that she was like a pack horse. Her voice will be missed in Congress. I will miss her,” Dreier said. 

In Congress, she also supported funding for the arts. She once called the arts “the only thing that I know that tells us who we were and who we are and who we hope to be.”

Slaughter was born Aug. 14, 1929. She received a bachelor’s degree in microbiology and a master’s degree in public health from the University of Kentucky. Slaughter and her late husband, Robert, moved to Fairport, a suburb of Rochester, New York, in the 1950s, where they remained for the rest of their lives. Robert Slaughter died in 2014.

Among her recent legislative accomplishments was a measure aimed at banning insider trading by members of Congress. The 2012 law, known as the STOCK Act, requires public reports of stock transactions by lawmakers. 

In 2015, she took aim at the Supreme Court, pushing legislation that would require it to establish a code of conduct similar to the ones that bind the rest of the federal judiciary. 

“The Supreme Court Ethics Act would help protect against bias in court rulings and uphold the integrity of our constitutional process. It would also serve the urgent purpose of repairing the public’s trust in one of our most important institutions,” she wrote in an op-ed for Roll Call.

Slaughter used her background in microbiology to push for health and medical legislation, specifically the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act. However, she did break ranks with her fellow Democrats on a number of issues, specifically with her vote against the North American Free Trade Agreement.

After two terms in the New York State Assembly, Slaughter was elected to Congress in 1986, ousting Republican incumbent Fred J. Eckert by 2 points. Redistricting in 2012 dramatically altered her district, fueling speculation that she might retire. However, Slaughter, 83 at the time, told The New York Times, “I don’t feel my age. I’ve always had the stamina of three people.” She won re-election by roughly 15 points.

Two years later, she only narrowly avoided defeat, scraping by with 871 votes in a race against Republican Mark Assini, the supervisor of the town of Gates in the suburbs of Rochester. She won a 2016 rematch by 12 points.

Slaughter is survived by her three children, seven grandchildren and a great-grandchild. 

Alex Gangitano contributed to this report.