IMAGE: Sen. William Roth Jr.
John Duricka  /  AP file
Sen. William Roth Jr., R-Del., in his Capitol Hill office in 1995.
updated 12/14/2003 4:27:59 PM ET 2003-12-14T21:27:59

Former Sen. William V. Roth Jr., R-Del., a fighter for tax cuts during his five terms in the Senate and the creator of the popular retirement account that carries his name, has died. He was 82.

Roth collapsed Saturday night at his daughter's house in Washington, said Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., who said he was notified by Roth's longtime secretary.

"It's a sad day for Delaware," Biden said. "This was one of the truly great figures in Delaware politics."

Roth, a relentless champion of tax cuts during his time in Washington, oversaw high-profile inquiries into both alleged taxpayer abuses by the Internal Revenue Service and Pentagon overspending that uncovered the famous $9,600 wrench and $640 toilet seat.

The Republican co-wrote the 1981 Kemp-Roth tax cuts, but he was best known as the creator of the Roth Individual Retirement Account, or Roth IRA.

Before he lost the race in 2000 for a sixth term in the Senate, Roth was one of the longest-tenured politicians in Delaware's history and the state's longest-serving U.S. senator.

First elected in 1966
Roth was a native of Montana and became a political icon in his adopted state of Delaware, where he moved in 1954.

During World War II, he had served in an Army intelligence unit in the Pacific theater, eventually receiving the Bronze Star for meritorious conduct. He attended Harvard University after the war and became a lawyer.

Roth won his first seat in Congress in 1966, when he defeated Democratic Rep. Harris B. McDowell Jr. He served two terms in the House before taking over the Senate seat vacated by John J. Williams, a Republican.

One of his first acts in Congress was to comb through the government agencies that provide grants, small business loans and other money. He finished with what became known as the "Roth Catalog," originally published in the Congressional Record in 1968, a guide now updated annually as "The Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance."

In 1981, early in his Senate career, Roth joined Rep. Jack Kemp, R-N.Y., to usher in a sweeping tax cut that conservatives hailed as the spark for the robust economy of the 1990s but critics blamed for the spiraling national deficits under President Ronald Reagan.

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Roth later focused his attention on the tax collectors, leading a series of high-profile congressional hearings into the workings of the Internal Revenue Service.

Although Roth insisted that his inquiry reined in an agency out of control, the hearings were unable to substantiate any specific claims of abuse by IRS workers. He later wrote a 1999 book, "The Power to Destroy," a look at the IRS.

In 1983, as chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee, he helped to expose wasteful defense spending, drawing attention to overpriced spare parts by decorating a Christmas tree with screws, nuts and wrenches. The total price tag was $101,000.

"It costs us $110 to buy the same parts at local hardware stores and supply houses," Roth said at the time.

Roth IRA caps career
Roth's crowning legislative achievement was the creation of the Roth IRA, an individual retirement account that allows people to invest taxable income that can be withdrawn tax-free in retirement.

Despite his achievements in the Senate and 99 percent name recognition among voters, Delaware sent Roth into retirement in 2000 by giving former Gov. Tom Carper an overwhelming victory. At the time, Roth was 79, the third-oldest member of the Senate.

He frequently referred to his veteran status — and his seat as chairman of the Finance Committee — during the 2000 election.

"Who says I'm too old?" Roth said then. "I have achieved the seniority in the U.S. Senate that makes Delaware's voice heard and, even more importantly, listened to."

Carper avoided making Roth's age a direct part of his own campaign, but the senator had health problems which, coupled with Carper's energetic campaign style and a surge in Democratic enrollment, gave the Democrat an Election Day victory of more than 11 percentage points.

At least twice during the campaign, Roth publicly collapsed, once in front of TV cameras. His campaign blamed the falls on an inner ear problem that caused vertigo.

Roth had come to Delaware as a lawyer but always said he preferred the life of a politician — campaigning outside grocery stores and in union halls and bowling alleys.

"As a lawyer, you get a horizontal slice of life," Roth once said. "You work, play and go to church with the same people. But in politics, you get a vertical slice. You get to meet everybody."

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