Rostenkowski's doings give highhanded image



WASHINGTON -- When the wolves seem to be closing in on House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski over the multiple allegations of misuse of congressional funds, you would think he would be avoiding anything that reinforces his image as a master wheeler-dealer who operates under his own rules. You would think so.

Yet the word is that he has struck a deal with the Health Insurance Association of America, the principal health insurance lobby, whereby it will refrain from airing any of those "Harry and Louise" television ads or similar criticisms of the Clinton health care proposals while the Ways and Means Committee marks up the bill.

In return, Rostenkowski is said to have agreed to consider modifications in the bill favored by the insurance industry, including how premiums are to be calculated depending on the number of employees in a firm, and delaying coverage for pre-existing conditions during the transitional period to the new health care system.

Evidence of the deal is seen in a letter from William Gradison, the former Ohio Republican congressman who now heads HIAA, to Rostenkowski promising the group "will not publicly advertise against" provisions it opposes. An aide to the chairman insists, however, that he "has no written deals with anybody," and one Democratic member of the committee, Rep. Benjamin Cardin of Maryland, calls talk of a deal "a figment of the imagination of the insurance companies."

At the same time, Cardin says the notion of television ads driving any decision-making in the committee's legislating process "is a terrible idea," and says he is confident that any changes made in the bill by the chairman will get full review by the committee. "I know how Mr. Rostenkowski operates," he says.

The appearance of things, however, is something else. The average voter is likely to take the agreement to keep "Harry and Louise" off the air during this critical period as a typical Capitol Hill quid pro quo in the hands of the champion of deal-making. Indeed, Rostenkowski has been quoted as saying he will do whatever it takes to get the 20 votes he needs in his committee to produce a bill. And taking the heat off a few fence-sitting committee members by lowering the public clamor seems to be part of what he thinks it will take.

At the White House, where President Clinton sees Rostenkowski as so critical to health care reform that he campaigned for him in his Democratic primary, the attitude is to let the chairman handle it as he sees fit. It can all be worked out, one ranking White House aide says, once a bill clears Ways and Means, and as other versions make their way out of other committees in Congress.

"All these bills," this aide says, "are going to have a reworking when they get to the floor." He says he has been told "on good authority" that the delay in coverage of pre-existing conditions -- a rock-bottom feature of the Clinton plan -- would be a temporary concession only, to end once the new system is in place.

But the White House has learned that Rostenkowski marches to his own drummer, as in his recent observation that health reform will require higher taxes, at a time the administration has tried to finesse the matter of its price tag.

For all that, the notion of a television ad being so influential that the mere threat of airing it can bring about substantive revisions in important national legislation is a commentary on how lobbying has changed in recent years.

There was an innocent time when pressure groups would engage in low-cost efforts, rallying their people simply to send in postcards to congressmen arguing for this or that legislative action. Now hundreds of thousands of dollars, even millions, are poured into television campaigns -- as well as re-election campaign treasuries through political action committees -- to apply the heat.

It can be argued that Rostenkowski is merely being realistic in doing what he thinks is necessary to create the proper climate within his Ways and Means Committee to win over the votes to carry the day on health care reform. But in doing so, he reinforces an image of highhandedness that he doesn't need in his personal legal fight for political survival.

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