Biography – Senator William V Roth
Table of Contents
Senator William V. Roth, Jr., is best-known as the creator of the Roth IRA, co-author of the Roth-Kemp tax cuts, “the taxpayer’s best friend, and a staunch advocate of limited government spending. Serving thirty-four years in Congress, he rose to the chairmanships of the Senate Finance Committee, the Governmental Affairs Committee, and the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Senator Roth became a leading expert in the fields of economics, finance, trade, tax reform, foreign policy, the environment, and social issues. He led congressional efforts to reform budgetary practices, combat government was and inefficiency, protect the environment, and played a critical role in the development of legislation to create a more open and accountable government. According to the Dover Post, “At a time when the Congress is not always shown in the best light, it’s comforting to know we have a man like Bill Roth in the Senate.” (1)
William V. Roth, Jr. was born in Great Falls Montana, on July 22, 1921. His parents were William Victor and Clara Nelson Roth. His older sister Lucille was born in 1916. (2) Their father managed a local grocery store in Great Falls. The family moved to Billings, Montana in 1922, and to Helena, Montana, two years later. William V. Roth, Sr., ran a local brewery in Helena, and the family lived at 417 N. Benton Avenue. (3)
In Helena, Roth went to Hawthorne School and Helena High School, but returned to Great Falls for his junior year after an earthquake damaged the high school in Helena. In high school, Roth was active in school publications, the debate team, student council, and drama. In 1939, he graduated from Helena High School with a full scholarship to Montana State University in Missoula. After his freshman year, Roth transferred to the University of Oregon in Eugene. In college, he worked as a student accountant to help offset his expenses. He was involved in intramural sports, several publications, and radio dramatics.
During his junior year at the University of Oregon in 1942, Roth was awarded a scholarship to take graduate classes at Harvard Business School. In Boston, he worked as an accountant and a waiter. Roth spent a year at Harvard, taking classes in foreign trade, accounting, and administrative policy. At Harvard, Roth entered Army R.O.T.C. In June 1943, Roth graduated from the University of Oregon with a Bachelor of Arts in business administration.
After graduating from college, Roth enlisted in the U.S. Army as a private on June 12, 1943 but was encouraged to attend Officer Candidate School (OCS). He graduated from OCS on November 11, 1943 and was commissioned a second lieutenant. Following basic training, Lieutenant Roth served as platoon leader and instructor. He received orders overseas to the Pacific on June 6, 1944.
From August 4, 1944, to September 6, 1945, Roth was Chief of the Collation Department of the
Intelligence Section of the Psychological Warfare Branch at General MacArthur’s Headquarters. He reported to General Bonner F. Fellers and served in New Guinea, Australia, the Philippines, Japan, and Korea. The Collation Department gathered data produced by existing military intelligence agencies, analyzed enemy psychological vulnerabilities, and presented their findings with clear-cut objectives to the Planning Section of the Intelligence Section. On January 22, 1945, Roth was promoted to first lieutenant and he became captain on August 29, 1945.
After the war, Captain William V. Roth, Jr., was transferred to Tokyo, Japan. On September 7, 1945, he became planner of the Collation Department, and inaugurated programs for the Japanese Broadcasting System. He investigated the Japanese radio broadcasting structure to ensure democratic and dynamic radio programs. On September 17, 1945, Roth was awarded the Bronze Star “for meritorious achievement in connection with military operations against the enemy in the Southwest Pacific from
July 30, 1944 to July 4, 1945.” From late 1945 to 1946, Roth served as the Information Chief of the Radio Division of Civil Information and Education Section in the General McArthur’s Headquarters. During this time, he compiled and studied intelligence obtained in the Far East and Southeast Asia, and he became knowledgeable about the people, their ideas, and their philosophies. His responsibilities included the planning of radio programs for the Broadcasting Corporation of Japan, and he introduced a series of programs designed to promote the freedom of speech. Throughout his political career, Roth continued his interest in the Far East and Southeast Asian problems. Captain Roth was honorably discharged in 1946.
William Roth used the G.I. Bill to finish his graduate studies at Harvard University. In February 1947, he earned a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard Business School. Roth then enrolled in Harvard Law School and received his law degree in June 1949. He was admitted to the California State Bar in January 1950 and the Delaware State Bar in July 1958.
In 1949, Roth became a lawyer for the Hercules Powder Company, handling defense contracts for a plant in Virginia. He worked for Hercules for fifteen years. During the Korean War, he was a civilian plant attorney at the U.S. Army’s Radford Arsenal. In 1955, Roth was named senior legal counsel and transferred to the company’s corporate headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware.
Early Community Service Life
William V. Roth, Jr., began his political involvement in the Republican Party after World War II. When he moved to Virginia, he joined the Virginia Young Republicans. From 1952 to 1954, Roth was chairman and president of the Sixth District Young Republican Federation of Virginia. In 1956, he was elected chairman of the Delaware Young Republicans. Roth came to Delaware as a lawyer, but always said he preferred the life of a politician, campaigning outside grocery stores, in union halls, and in bowling alleys. Roth once said, “As a lawyer, you get a horizontal slice of life. You work, play, and go to church with the same people. But in politics, you get a vertical slice. You get to meet everybody.”
Roth served on Delaware’s Republican Platform Committee in 1956 and 1958. In 1957, he was cochairman of the Delaware Citizens Committee for the Hoover Report and was active in developing Governor Caleb Boggs’ “New Day for Delaware” government reorganization program. He served as
chairman of Delaware’s Commission on Modernization of State Laws from 1961 to 1967. Roth was vice- chairman of the Delaware Citizens for Eisenhower Congressional Committee. He held several posts in the Active Young Republican organization, serving as president of the New Castle County chapter, chairman of the Delaware state chapter, and vice-chairman of the National Federation of Young Republicans.
While president of the National Federation of Young Republicans, Roth ran for lieutenant governor in 1960. His campaign earned him statewide recognition. Credited by many as waging a vigorous and active campaign, he was narrowly defeated by Eugene Lammot, the mayor of Wilmington. On April 10, 1961, Roth was elected chairman of the Republican State Committee of Delaware, and he was reelected to a two-year term on September 18, 1962. In June 1963, the U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense named him to the Working Subgroup of the Defense Industry Advisory Council in Washington, D.C. Roth served on several statewide and national legal committees. He was defeated for reelection as chairman of the Republican State Committee in 1964.
Roth was active in community organizations as well as politics. He belonged to the American Bar Association, the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the Delaware Grange. He was active in many organizations including the Boy Scouts of America, Boys State, Y.M.C.A., and the Red Cross. He served as Delaware chairman of the 1965 multiple sclerosis fundraising campaign.
In 1965, William V. Roth, Jr., married Jane K. Richards, a trial lawyer in Wilmington and a partner in Richards, Layton, and Finger. In 1985, Jane Richards Roth became a federal judge on the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals. The Roths had two children, William V. Roth III, born October 1966, and Katherine Kellond Roth, born August 1969. The Roth family belonged to the Episcopal Church.
By the mid-1960s, William Roth was an active leader in Delaware politics and civic activities, as well as an acknowledged expert on government spending and military procurement. His accomplishments prompted Delaware Republicans to encourage him to seek his party’s nomination for Congress. On November 8, 1966, Roth was elected to the 90th Congress as U.S. representative-at-large for the state of Delaware. He defeated five-term incumbent Democrat Harris B. McDowell, Jr.
In the House of Representatives, Congressman Roth was on several committees and subcommittees including the Foreign Affairs Committee, House Judiciary Committee, Committee on Merchant Marines and Fisheries, Subcommittee on Oceanography, and the House Republican Committee on Western Alliances. Roth also belonged to the 27-member House Republican Policy Committee and was chairman of the “8-66 Club,” an informal House study group whose members were all elected in 1966. In 1967, the members of the House Republican Committee on Western Alliances honored former President Dwight D. Eisenhower for his part in the development of NATO. Roth was part of the Visiting Committee of the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution and was on the advisory committee of the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown University. He led two parliamentary exchange visits to Japan that opened discussions about closer international trade relations.
Congressman Roth introduced legislation on environmental control, school desegregation, court- ordered busing, crime, juvenile delinquency, government reorganization, ethics, and foreign policy. He attracted national attention for his interest in the operation and efficiency of the federal government, introducing legislation to create a Hoover Commission-type body to study the topic. When he arrived in Washington, Roth discovered that no single person or agency knew the exact number of federal domestic assistance programs. He embarked on a continuing effort to ensure that all programs were catalogued and detailed. Originally published in the Congressional Record in 1968, this project became known as the Roth Catalog. The 1,034-page document that listed more than a thousand assistance programs was described by Congressman Roth as “a very small, but basic step” in improving governmental operations. To ensure continued annual publication and quarterly updating of this catalog, Roth introduced the Program Information Act of 1970. The Roth Catalog is currently updated annually by the General Accounting Office as The Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance.
Congressman Roth served two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives before winning the Senate seat vacated by retiring Senator John J. Williams in 1970. Roth was in the House from January 3, 1967, until his resignation on December 31, 1970. Senator Williams, a fellow Republican, left office one day early giving Senator Roth seniority over the incoming class of new senators. Senator Roth was reelected in 1976, 1982, 1988, and 1994. He served in the U.S. Senate from January 1, 1971, to January 3, 2001.
A diligent and conscientious lawmaker, cutting taxes and reducing government spending were among Senator Roth’s top goals throughout his congressional career. Senator Roth made it a point to have one of the highest percentage voting records of any U.S. Senate Republican. Throughout his congressional career, William V. Roth, Jr., was concerned about unchecked inflation, tax reform, and government efficiency. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, he was a member of the Save Our Bucks (SOBs) Taskforce, sponsoring numerous bills in an effort to reduce taxes and inflation.
Senator Roth was named chairman of the 1980 Republican National Convention’s platform subcommittee on economic policy. From 1978 to 1981, Roth and New York Congressman Jack Kemp cosponsored a series of tax-cutting legislation known as the Roth-Kemp tax cuts, which were championed by the Reagan administration and became part of a stimulus package known as “supply- side” economics. As the centerpiece of Ronald Reagan’s economic program, the Kemp-Roth tax cuts led to the creation of more than 19 million jobs and the largest peacetime economic expansion in the history of the United States.
Senator Roth’s Senate committee assignments included the Banking and Currency Committee, the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, the Committee on Government Operations, the Governmental Affairs Committee, the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, the Intergovernmental Relations Committee, the Subcommittee on National Security and International Operations, the Senate Finance Committee, the Subcommittee on International Trade, the Foreign Relations Committee, the Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Joint Economic Committee, the Joint Committee on Taxation, the Senate Budget Committee, and the Select Committee on Intelligence.
He was chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Governmental Affairs from 1981 to 1986. Senator Roth led the effort to reinvent government, making the federal government more accountable, and requiring agencies to set and meet performance standards. He authored landmark legislation to protect children from pornographic exploitation and sexual abuse, and launched investigations into professional boxing, organized crime, criminal aliens, drug trafficking, health care, Social Security, and union corruption. Senator Roth directed investigations into allegations of fraud and mismanagement in federal programs and agencies including the Department of Defense, the U.S. Treasury, and the Internal Revenue Service.
Senator Roth was chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee from 1981 to 1986 and from January 3 to September 12, 1995. In 1983, he exposed wasteful defense spending, drawing attention to overpriced spare parts by decorating a Christmas tree with wrenches, screws, nuts, and bolts that would have cost the government $101,000. Roth said, “It costs us $110 to buy the same parts at local hardware stores and supply houses.” He uncovered numerous accounts of government waste, questionable government contracts, and Pentagon overspending, including the infamous $9,600 wrench and the $640 toilet seat. Senator Roth believed that unchecked federal appropriation systems would cause rapid increases in inflation, the costs of construction, equipment purchases, and price increases in the consumer market. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Senator Roth oversaw reductions in military procurement and reduced the federal budget by introducing legislation to cut expenses and close unnecessary facilities.
Named the Taxpayers’ Best Friend by the National Taxpayers Union, Senator Roth worked to balance
the federal budget and reduce tax burdens by limiting federal spending. He focused on identifying and eliminating fraud, government waste, and mismanagement, particularly at the Pentagon. The Delaware State News reported, “Roth released a package to reduce the federal deficit by $558 billion over five years without the massive tax increases proposed by Clinton.” 
As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Senator Roth played a key role in the development of tax policy. He was chairman of the committee from September 12, 1995, to January 3, 2001. He was a primary force behind the drive to clean up wasteful spending, including costly and inefficient Pentagon procurement practices. Senator Roth was a leader in the successful effort to strengthen the federal budget process. He introduced legislation to create a two-year budget cycle and to consolidate Congressional appropriations practices. He sponsored legislation making health care affordable and to make physicians more accountable. In 1997 and 1998, Senator Roth oversaw high-profile Congressional hearings into the workings of the Internal Revenue Service. He conducted the most extensive investigation of the Internal Revenue Service to date, disclosing widespread abuses of taxpayers and agency employees and coauthored the IRS Reform and Restructuring Act of 1998. In 1999, he authored The Power to Destroy, a critically acclaimed book about the Internal Revenue Service.
Senator Roth was widely known as an expert in foreign policy and a skilled internationalist. He understood the socio-economic balance between tariffs, international trade, taxes, inflation, foreign relations, and employment. Roth served on the Trilateral Commission, which focused on international issues and relationships between Western alliances and Japan. He became the Senate’s majority representative on the United States – Japan Friendship Commission. Senator Roth championed strong security alliances in Europe and Asia, supported NATO enlargement, and the unconditional extension of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. He became president of the North Atlantic Assembly, the parliamentary arm of NATO. Senators Roth and Joseph R. Biden, Jr., cochaired of the Senate NATO Observer Group. As a proponent of strong security alliances in Europe and Asia, Senator Roth worked to build consensus for NATO enlargement and served on the boards of both the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Pan-Pacific Association. He co-founded the steering committee of the Asia Pacific Parliamentary Forum.
Senator Roth enacted trade legislation, including Permanent Normal Trade Relations status for China and Taiwan, the African Growth and Opportunity Act, and the Caribbean Basin Initiative, which expanded the North American Free Trade Agreement and created jobs in the United States and abroad. A leading advocate of a stronger U.S. trade policy, Roth authored legislation to create a U.S. Department of International Trade and Industry. He was an advocate of free and competitive fair international trade and supported the development of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Senator Roth was an official Senate adviser to the United States trade negotiation team and was one of three senators on the
U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, which promoted closer cooperation between federal, state, and local governments in the United States. He was a fellow of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the East- West Center.
The environment and pollution were major concerns of William V. Roth, Jr. He introduced and supported legislation to promote environmental awareness, reforestation, recycling programs, public transportation, alternative fuel research, species preservation, the preservation of historic sites, wilderness, wetlands, farmland, and national parks. The dangerous levels of pollution in Delaware caused Senator Roth to conduct investigations into several types of pollution including ocean dumping, the use of zoned commercial property, landfill sites, and chemical waste. He urged the Environmental Protection Agency to investigate the transportation of waste products and ocean incineration by major industries along the Delaware River. He sponsored legislation to require automotive manufacturers make new vehicles meet emissions standards and introduced the “clunker” bill requiring older automobiles to pass state emissions tests. In 1984, Senator Roth compared living in Delaware to his native Montana, “Interestingly, my state of Delaware is still very agricultural and very open,” he said. “In fact, where I live is still very open. Maybe the reason we haven’t moved down to Washington is because we live in semi-country, which goes back to my roots.” In the aftermath of the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, Senator Roth sponsored legislation opposing petroleum exploration in Alaska and supported legislative measures imposing environmental safety standards on ocean oil drilling. Senator Roth was the 1989 recipient of the Wilderness Society’s distinguished Ansel Adams Award for his work to protect pristine lands, such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and to clean up America’s beaches, bays, and rivers. To increase environmental awareness, Senators Roth and Al Gore cosponsored a senate resolution in 1991 to designate April 22 as Earth Day. In 1993, Senator Roth introduced legislation to create a cabinet-level post for the Environmental Protection Agency.
Senator Roth was a long-time advocate of emergency services personnel, and actively supported Delaware organizations. He held the title of president emeritus of the Delaware Volunteer Firemen’s Association and was chairman of the Congressional Fire Services Institute Caucus. Because of his leadership and assistance, local fire and emergency services received federal funding for their critical needs.
Senator Roth’s crowning legislative achievement was the creation of the Roth IRA. Former Delaware
governor and Congressman Pete du Pont said, “We’re all beneficiaries of the Roth IRA.” Roth promoted family savings for home ownership, education, and self-reliance in retirement. He took an active part in several proposals to strengthen the IRA, including the Packwood-Roth IRA Bill and the Bentsen-Roth Super IRA. His legislation resulted in the expansion of traditional Individual Retirement Accounts, increasing the amount of money that can be saved by homemakers, and allowing penalty-free withdrawals to be made for first-time home purchases and educational needs. In 1997, the Senate passed into law the Roth IRA allowing individuals to invest taxed income to be withdrawn tax-free in retirement. The Roth IRA is so much a part of everyday language it is listed in Webster’s dictionary. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said of Senator Roth, “It’s fitting that his memory is preserved by a savings vehicle that will bring millions of Americans economic security in the future.”
In 2000, Senator Roth’s committee assignments included the chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee, the vice-chairmanship of the Joint Committee on Taxation, and membership on the Governmental Affairs Committee and the Joint Economic Committee. Senator Roth was defeated in his bid for a sixth term in the U.S. Senate by Thomas Carper, governor of Delaware. William V. Roth, Jr., was one of the longest serving politicians in Delaware history, serving two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and five terms as a U.S. Senator. In 2001, he transferred more than 1,000 boxes of his congressional papers to the Historical Society of Delaware. On September 6, 2001, Senator Roth and former President George H. W. Bush hosted a gala dinner to raise funds to preserve those papers.
Senator William V. Roth, Jr., died suddenly in Washington, D.C., on December 13, 2003. Governor Ruth Ann Minner, who ordered all American and state flags in Delaware be lowered to half-staff in tribute, said that, “Delaware is no doubt a different and better place for Bill Roth’s time here.” At a public memorial service at the University of Delaware on December 21, 2003, Senator Joseph R. Biden, Jr., who worked alongside Senator Roth for nearly thirty years, said, “First and foremost, Bill Roth was my friend. There is not anyone in politics, either party, I trusted more than Bill Roth. Roth was a major figure in U.S. politics, even though he sometimes did not get all of the recognition he deserved.” Senator Roth earned a reputation as a consummate gentleman with a flair for bridging partisan divisions in the U.S. Senate. He made life better for the people of Delaware, the nation, and the world.
- Dover Post, November 27, 1991
- Lucille Roth moved to Washington, D.C., and Senator Roth stayed with her during long Congressional sessions. She died in 2002
- William V. Roth, Sr., moved to Wilmington, Delaware, in 1969. He died at the Delaware Masonic Home in 1977 at the age of 93
- This group included Congressmen George H. W. Bush (R-TX) and Bob Dole (R-KS).
- Cerf, Christopher. The Pentagon Catalog: Ordinary Products at Extraordinary Prices. New York: Workman Publishing Company, 1986
 Delaware State News, March 18, 1993