Ex-House Speaker Thomas Foley Dies
Tenure Ended With GOP Takeover
FILE - In this Jan. 31, 1990 file photo, President George Bush receives applause from Vice President Dan Quayle, left, and House Speaker Thomas Foley prior to delivering his first State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in Washington. Foley has died at the age of 84, according to House Democratic aides on Friday, Oct. 18, 2013, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Foley was a Washington state lawmaker who became the first speaker since the Civil War who failed to win re-election in his home district. He was U.S. ambassador to Japan for four years during the Clinton administration. But he spent the most time in the House, serving 30 years including more than five as speaker. (AP Photo/Bob Daugherty, file )
Washington — Thomas Foley, the speaker of the House of Representatives who became the highest-profile casualty in the Republican “revolution” of 1994, the election that ended the Democratic Party’s hammerlock on the House and signaled the start of a furious new era in political warfare, died Oct. 18 at his home in the District of Columbia. He was 84.
His wife, Heather Foley, confirmed the death and said the cause was complications from strokes. The Washington state congressman had been ailing from conditions including aspirational pneumonia and Bell’s palsy, a nerve disorder.
Thomas Foley was one of Capitol Hill’s most outspoken critics of the extreme partisanship that emerged toward the end of his career, which contributed to his defeat in the 1994 election and has since intensified so dramatically that Congress is often described as “broken.”
He was elected to the House in 1964 and served for 30 of the 40 consecutive years that his party controlled the chamber. Foley established himself from the outset as a conciliatory figure; one of his first acts after his election victory was to host a reception for the Republican incumbent he defeated to win the seat.
As he rose through the leadership ranks — from majority whip to majority leader and finally to speaker in 1989 — he became known as a consensus builder. He helped forge a compromise that allowed the deficit-reducing Gramm-Rudman-Hollings legislation to go through in the mid-1980s. He publicly supported President Ronald Reagan, a Republican, on his controversial economic strategy. During Bill Clinton’s administration, Foley helped the president win passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement despite opposition from many other Democrats.
He was a burly man with a commanding physical presence, but especially as speaker he did not seem to relish power. “There is a degree to which you can sort of push, encourage, support, direct,” he once told The New York Times. “But the Speakership isn’t a dictatorship.” That outlook separated him from Thomas “Tip” O’Neill Jr., the powerful, back-slapping Massachusetts liberal who presided over the House in the late 1970s and through most of the 1980s, and from Jim Wright, the Texas Democrat who succeeded O’Neill and was criticized for heavy-handedness.
By the later years of the Democratic majority, the party was increasingly perceived to have grown arrogant with power. Then Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, the future speaker of the GOP-controlled House, seized on the resentment to launch what became known as the Republican revolution.
One of his chief tools of political warfare — later wielded against him — was the ethics inquiry. His most prominent target was Wright, who resigned from Congress in 1989 amid a polarizing investigation into his book sales and personal business dealings.
Foley, then majority leader, succeeded Wright as speaker. For two more election cycles the Democrats held the House, but Republican momentum, fueled by Gingrich, was building. In the 1994 election, Foley was painted as a Washington insider — the figurehead of the unpopular Democratic House — and buffeted by calls to “De-Foley-ate Congress.” When he lost, he was the first House speaker to be unseated since Abraham Lincoln was president.
A grandson of homesteaders and son of a judge, Foley sometimes seemed out of place in the rough-and-tumble of Capitol Hill politics, even as he ascended to become, as House speaker, second in line of succession to the presidency. The New Yorker magazine once described him as a “major player almost in spite of himself.”
He won his House seat by defeating an 11-term Republican, Walt Horan, in a conservative district in eastern Washington state. Foley had not registered his candidacy until minutes before the filing deadline because he was not entirely convinced that he wanted to run. In the capital, he joined other Democrats in leading the series of historic reforms that reordered the House by dismantling its seniority-based system and decentralizing power among the subcommittees and individuals members.
Foley stood to benefit from those reforms in 1975, when colleagues moved to replace entrenched chairmen including W.R. Poage, D-Texas, of the Agriculture Committee. Foley, then the committee’s second-ranking Democrat, refused to partake in Poage’s ouster and instead rose to his defense. When Foley was elected chairman, he named Poage vice chairman.
“It was an extraordinary moment in House history,” former congressman Don Bonker, D-Wash., told The Washington Post years later, remarking on the collegiality Foley had displayed.
After the 1980 election, Foley gave up the committee chairmanship to become majority whip. He drew wide attention in 1982, when he gave a televised speech calling on Democratic colleagues to cast a vote of “political courage” to support Reagan’s tax proposal.
“A star is born,” O’Neill, a political kingmaker as speaker, was quoting as saying shortly thereafter in admiration of Foley’s performance.
As majority leader, a post he assumed after the 1986 election, Foley became part of the troika that also included Wright and Rep. Tony Coelho, D-Calif., the party whip. Foley stood out as decidedly the least partisan of the three.
Some prominent Democrats expressed frustration with what they considered Foley’s excessive caution at a time when Republicans, led by Gingrich, appeared to be on the march. O’Neill was widely reported to have said that Foley could “argue three sides of every issue.”
“When you talk to Tom, you start biting your fingernails and you don’t stop until you’re up to your elbows,” Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, the powerful Illinois Democrat, once told Time magazine. “What he does is good, but sometimes getting there is frustrating.”
Characteristically, Foley acknowledged his critics’ points. But, he once said, “I guess I don’t think caution is a bad attribute.”
“I do look at problems from as many sides as possible,” he said. “I concede that. I say, ‘What about this? What about this?’ That’s how I decide what the best course should be.”
Foley’s speakership began with what was roundly described as an episode of unscrupulous partisanship. At the time of his selection, the Republic National Committee released a memo titled “Tom Foley: Out of the Liberal Closet.” In what was described as an effort to cast doubt on Foley’s reputation as a moderate, the memo compared his voting record to that of Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., a liberal legislator who was openly gay.
Legislators on both sides of the aisle condemned the memo and its innuendo. Foley appeared on television and said that he was “of course, not a homosexual, been married for 21 years.”
Lee Atwater, the RNC chairman, apologized to him. President George H.W. Bush called the memo “disgusting.”
Despite the ongoing infighting, the House achieved a number of legislative milestones during Foley’s speakership, which spanned five and a half years, from the early months of the George H.W. Bush administration through the first half of Clinton’s first term.
During the Bush years, Foley presided over the House during the passage of a landmark update to the Clean Air Act, expansions of the Head Start and Medicaid programs, the Americans with Disabilities Act and, most notably, the massive 1990 budget deal that established “pay-as-you-go” practices. That legislation forced Bush to break his “no new taxes” promise — a key issue in his 1992 re-election defeat — and split the Republican Party, with Gingrich leading the opposition.
During the Clinton administration, Congress passed a second massive budget deal that laid the groundwork for balancing the budget but stirred controversy because of the tax increases it imposed. Other legislative milestones, besides NAFTA, included passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act.
But the “primary significance” of his speakership, said Thomas Mann, the congressional scholar, was Foley’s leadership at a time of such turbulence in the House.
“It was a time when the House was unraveling,” he said, “and so it was a very difficult period, especially for someone like Foley who had ... such respect for the institution and reverence for it.”