Rod Blagojevich Accompanies Jesse Jackson on a Diplomatic Trip to Yugoslavia to Negotiate the Release of US Prisoners of War

In 1996, Blagojevich surrendered his seat in the state house to campaign in Illinois's 5th congressional district.

The district had long been represented by the powerful Democrat, Daniel Rostenkowski, who served as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. Rostenkowski was defeated for re-election in 1994 after pleading guilty to mail fraud and had been succeeded by Republican Michael Patrick Flanagan. Blagojevich soundly defeated Flanagan, with support from his father-in-law. He was elected two more times, taking 74% against a nominal Republican challenger in 1998 and having only a Libertarian opponent during 2000. He was not known as a particularly active congressman. In the late 1990s he traveled with Jesse Jackson, Jr. to Belgrade in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia to negotiate with President Slobodan Milošević for the release of American prisoners of war.

On October 10, 2002, Rod Blagojevich was among the 81 House Democrats who voted in favor of authorizing the invasion of Iraq. He was the only Democrat from Illinois to vote in favor of the Iraq War.

Over the years Blagojevich racked up campaign victories but few noteworthy political accomplishments. His most notable achievement came in 1999, when, as a congressman, he helped Rev. Jesse Jackson free three U.S. prisoners of war in Yugoslavia. "I think he got a post office named after a fallen police officer," state representative John Fritchey says of Blagojevich's résumé. "That's about it." In both Springfield and Washington, he earned a reputation as a friendly and outgoing legislator, but not a particularly serious one. During his first run for governor, Blagojevich was something of a political Zelig: a pretty-boy political lightweight reared in Chicago's old-style wheeling-dealing ways, but a candidate who campaigned as a progressive populist and anticorruption activist. So when he was elected in 2002—the first Democrat in 26 years to win the governorship—no one was exactly sure what kind of governor he would turn out to be. But with Democrats controlling the executive mansion, both chambers of the General Assembly, and all but one of the state's five constitutional offices, political observers figured: How bad could he be?