William Victor Roth Biography

Born William Victor Roth Jr., July 22, 1921, in Great Falls, MT; died of heart failure, December 13, 2003, in Washington, DC. U.S. congressman and attorney. Delaware's former senator, William V. Roth Jr., passed away at age 82 in 2003, but his legacy survives in the popular Individual Retirement Account, or IRA, that bears his name. The five-term Republican also held the record as the longest-serving state-elected official in Delaware history.

Roth was born in 1921, in Montana cattle country. His parents moved from Great Falls to the state capital of Helena, where his father managed a brewery. Roth's mother liked to visit the Montana capitol building to listen to the political debates on the floor during sessions, and often took her young son with her. After graduating from the University of Oregon in 1943, Roth enlisted in the U.S. Army at the height of World War II, and served as a military intelligence officer in the South Pacific. He earned a Bronze Star for his service, but also benefited from the historic GI Bill, which provided college tuition aid for returning war veterans. Roth earned business and law degrees from Harvard University, and moved to Wilmington, Delaware, to become an attorney with a chemical company there. He eventually opened a law practice and became active in state Republican politics.

Roth lost his first bid for political office when he was narrowly defeated for the lieutenant governor's slot in 1960, but he became the state GOP chair a year later. In 1966, he ousted a Democrat incumbent in the U.S. House of Representatives, in part by exposing his opponent's less-than-stellar legislative attendance record. He quickly made his mark on Capitol Hill by compiling a list of all sources of government aid—programs, grants and other types of assistance—which he found by combing through the federal budget. The results were published in the Congressional Record in 1968, and annually thereafter as the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance, informally known as the "Roth Catalog."

Roth's name would also be appended to two significant legislative victories after he moved on to a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1970. He later teamed with a young House Republican named Jack Kemp on a tax cut proposal that languished until a newly elected Republican president, Ronald Reagan, championed it. The former California governor had campaigned on a promise to cut federal taxes, and the Kemp-Roth Act, passed by Congress in 1981, became one of the hallmarks of the Reagan Administration's supply-side economic strategy. Roth and Kemp's package reduced tax rates on the theory that higher taxes were discouraging investment, and perhaps even work itself. The resulting cuts were said to have ushered in a economic revitalization boom in the 1980s via new business investment, but were also blamed for large budget deficits during Reagan era.

Roth gained prominence as chair of the Senate Government Affairs Committee in the early 1980s. He was responsible for the infamous report revealing that defense contractors were gouging the Pentagon to the tune of $640 toilet seats and $9,600 wrenches sold to the U.S. Navy. Of the toilet seat, its maker argued that it was designed to meet the tough requirements for Navy aircraft, which included being "lightweight, corrosive resistant and sufficiently durable to withstand repeated usage" according to the New York Times. Roth responded to such claims, according to the newspaper, by pointing out, "You can go into a mobile home and see something not much different." In a 1983 stunt, he decorated a Christmas tree with nuts and bolts that, if purchased at prices charged to the Pentagon, racked up a total price tag of $101,000. "It costs us $110 to buy the same parts at local hardware stores and supply houses," the Chicago Tribune 's Randall Chase quoted him as saying.

Roth was a prominent Delaware official whose high marks from constituents crossed party lines. He often campaigned with his attention-getting Saint Bernard hounds, which served to soften a demeanor that was said to be a bit taciturn. His most enduring political legacy, however, came with the Roth IRA, which was part of Congress's Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997. The Roth individual retirement account differed from the standard IRA, in which taxes came due when the IRA reached maturity. In the Roth IRA, deposits were made from after-tax income, but the earnings were never taxed.

That same year, as chair of the Senate Finance Committee, Roth organized hearings to investigate abuses by the Internal Revenue Service. Reports had surfaced that IRS employees had access to the tax files of friends, families, and even celebrities, and the hearings also called the IRS to task for wrongful harassment of taxpayers over delinquent bills that were in error. Some Democrats called the hearings grandstanding, but a General Accounting Office report issued at the same time of Roth's hearings also documented numerous flaws in IRS record-keeping. "The agency as a whole does not enjoy the confidence of the American public," Roth said, according to his Los Angeles Times obituary. From the experience he even authored a 1999 book, The Power to Destroy, the cover of which declared, "How the IRS Became America's Most Powerful Agency, How Congress Is Taking Control and What You Can Do to Protect Yourself under the New Law."

In 2000, Roth made his bid for a sixth Senate term, but the popular incumbent faced an equally popular opponent, former Delaware Governor Thomas Carper. Carper was 53, and though Roth's 79 years were not a campaign issue outright, he collapsed twice during the campaign, once in front of television cameras. A check-up revealed an inner-ear problem that affected his balance, but the damage was done, and Carper beat him by eleven percentage points. The former legislator remained active, serving as co-chair of the U.S.-E.U.-Slovakia Action Commission, but died suddenly at the age of 82 after collapsing at his daughter's home in Washington, D.C. on December 13, 2003. The cause was heart failure. He is survived by his wife, Jane Richards Roth, a U.S. Court of Appeals judge in Philadelphia; and two children.


Chicago Tribune, December 15, 2003.

Los Angeles Times, December 15, 2003.

New York Times, December 15, 2003.

Times (London), December 30, 2003.

Washington Post, December 15, 2003.

—Carol Brennan

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