The deaths this week of two political Old Bulls has inspired some harsh commentary.
Writers have noted that Dan Rostenkowski, longtime chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, went to "Club Fed" (as he called it) on minor corruption charges. They have written at length that Ted Stevens, senator from Alaska for 40 years, brought a lot of pork-barrel projects to his state and was convicted on corruption charges -- a conviction overturned because of prosecutorial misconduct.
Let me put in a few good words for these two Old Bulls, whom I've followed in the 40 years that I've been co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.
Rosty worked hard in his 14 years as chairman of Ways and Means. The gruff Chicago pol, who got his House seat at age 30 because Mayor Richard J. Daley owed his father a favor, mastered the deals of legislation and could explain them lucidly on the floor.
He was an indispensable player in passing the 1986 tax reform that lowered rates and eliminated hundreds of tax preferences. That was the kind of bipartisan effort you haven't seen lately and one that was contrary to his institutional interest as chairman.
As for Stevens, he had a point when he said that Alaska, because of its geographical position, demographic character and heavy federal involvement, had special claims on the federal government.
Moreover, Stevens worked hard and could produce instantaneous justifications for even the most minor project he was backing. I have seen him spout forth the details, sometimes angrily, in both Washington and Alaska.
He deserves special credit for one piece of legislation that I've seen mentioned only briefly in the obituaries, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971.
This law was necessary because the Alaska statehood act had left unsettled the land claims of Alaska natives, 15 percent of the state's population. The North Slope oil fields, discovered in 1968, couldn't be exploited until those claims were settled.
The Native Claims Act took a novel approach, rejecting the traditional Indian reservation system and instead setting up a dozen Native corporations entitled to select certain lands and pooling mineral resource income among them. Each native got shares in one of the corporations.
The corporate form gave incentives to the management of each corporation to pay attention to minority opinion (because minorities could elect a director) and at the same time tended to ensure continuity of management. In contrast, some Indian reservations are governed by successive winners of 51 to 49 percent elections, with continued skirmishing and attendant corruption.