Rosty's Healthy Victory

March 17, 1994

For a president who takes his victories where he finds them, the triumph of House Ways and Means Committee chairman Dan Rostenkowski in his Chicago primary battle must have been especially sweet. President Clinton had gone to Chicago to campaign for Mr. Rostenkowski despite the threat of an indictment that still hangs over the powerful congressman. In so doing, he put his prestige on the line while underscoring how crucial Mr. Rostenkowski is to the administration agenda.

Had Mr. Rostenkowski been defeated, his control over Ways and Means would have eroded. As it is, his future is still in jeopardy, with federal prosecutors in the "final phase" of a two-year probe of charges he diverted House Post Office funds for personal and political use. But his resounding victory in Chicago -- far greater than anticipated -- had the seeming effect of a reprieve that might allow him to preside over full committee action on the key health-care bill next month.

This is important to the president, who must know Mr. Rostenkowski owes him one: committee approval of a health bill closer to the Clinton blueprint than other bills likely to emerge.

Ways and Means is always a key player. Through Mr. Rostenkowski, it was instrumental in last year's passage of the Clinton budget plan and ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement. This year it will play a central role in health and welfare reform, and in any tax provisions necessary to finance them. Even while Mr. Rostenkowski was busy in Chicago rallying Mayor Richard M. Daley's ward-heelers, the chairman's portrait stared down on the health subcommittee while his aides kept watch on proceedings.

Congressional committees no longer succumb to the discipline that prevailed in the Sam Rayburn days of 1958, when Mr. Rostenkowski first came to Capitol Hill. Nevertheless, he will probably have more influence over the final outcome of health care legislation than any other member of the House -- unless an indictment forces him out of the chairmanship (and perhaps even then).

The employer mandate issue is a case in point. Under the Clinton proposal, all employers would be required to pay at least 80 percent of the health care insurance of their workers. This undoubtedly will be whittled down, perhaps as low of 50 percent, with provisions for the subsidization of small employers with low-wage workers. But opponents of the Clinton plan, including most business organization, consider employer mandates a vast new government entitlement program that could kill jobs and businesses. It will take plenty of Rostenkowski muscle to preserve them.

The wheels of justice still roll, and they may yet roll over Dan Rostenkowski. Meantime Chicago voters have shown once again that they will overlook a committee chairman's admitted imperfections so long as he brings home the bacon.

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