Thunderclap on the Hill

July 21, 1993

To Speaker Tom Foley, he is "one of the most extraordinary legislators in the Congress." To Dick Simpson, the Republican he defeated in a House election last year, he is "a symbol of corruption in Congress." And it is Dan Rostenkowski's fate, at the moment that should have been the pinnacle of his career as point man for the Clinton budget bill, that both descriptions are widely accepted.

One can hardly exaggerate the thunderclap on Capitol Hill when the former House postmaster, Robert V. Rota, pleaded guilty to three counts charging him with having passed $21,300 in cash to a legislator identified only as "Congressman A" but all the world soon knew as "Rosty." There may be other lawmakers caught in a year-long federal investigation that promises to further besmirch the reputation of Congress, but yesterday the guy who mattered was the big, burly Chicagoan who heads the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.

It was a Rostenkowski kind of day on the surface, as the 18-term congressman dined with the president and worked a Senate-House conference committee where Democrats are under numbing pressure to come up with a budget package that proves they can govern. The Clinton White House has long counted on Mr. Rostenkowski to craft legislation to its liking -- a feat he performed earlier in muscling a $500 billion deficit reduction bill through his committee and on the House floor.

Mr. Rostenkowski's key assignment had revived his spirits after months of so-called Bush administration "witch hunting" had left him depressed and distracted. Now his colleagues wonder. They see his clout diminishing in tandem with a weakening of the administration economic plan, even if a threatened federal indictment does not come until the conference committee has completed its work.

Rota's guilty plea was extracted by the Clinton Justice Department. The former postmaster, one of scores of Rostenkowski patronage beneficiaries, is not the only song bird on the Hill. Others who have been granted immunity from prosecution are said to be cooperating with federal authorities.

The implications of the evidence piling up against Mr. Rostenkowski and at least one former backbencher are devastating. If proven, they would reveal a pattern in which, according to court papers, "Rota provided large amounts of stamps to the congressmen and later exchanged the stamps for cash [or] . . . gave cash directly in exchange for vouchers." Though Rota is not changed with using this money for his own use, the feds said he placed his services "at the disposal of certain United States Congressmen, knowing full well that he was aiding the embezzlement of money from those funds."

The timing of the latest turn in the House Post Office investigation is not only bad for the administration but for the House as a whole, which is still getting over a House Bank scandal involving much less serious offenses. Mr. Rostenkowski's friends are still counting on him to prove he is not guilty of conduct they find incredible and appalling.

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