Former House Speaker Tom Foley D-WA, known for civility-based leadership style throughout his 3 decades in Congress from 1965 to 1995, is dead at the age of 84.
The eastern Washington Democrat was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1964 with his party’s historic gains under President Lyndon Johnson, unseating a ten-term Republican incumbent, Walter Horan, by a 7-point margin. However, 30-years later, Foley was thrown out of office alongside the majority of Democrats during the 1994 midterm elections, becoming the first Speaker since 1860 to lose reelection.
To be sure, Thomas Foley was respected by members of both parties for his style of governing fairness and emphasis on building consensus, a characteristic sorely lacking under President Obama and a far-left Democratic Party. Foley’s speakership was a reversal of the “rule with an iron-fist” way of his predecessors Jim Wright, D-TX, Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, D-MA., and Sam Rayburn, D-TX. Nancy Pelosi quickly returned to that speaker-dictator role filled by so many prior.
“There is a degree to which you can sort of push, encourage, support, direct,” Foley said. “But the speakership isn’t a dictatorship.”
Instance after instance, Thomas Foley’s decision to compromise rather than make confrontation had frustrated his Democratic peers, who became frustrated that he would refuse to exclude the other party.
“Tom Foley can argue three sides of every issue,” frequently complained Tip O’Neill, who owed his leadership to Foley.
Foley rose through the leadership ranks first as chairman of the House Agriculture Committee in 1975, then as majority whip in 1981 and majority leader in 1987. After the resignation of then-Speaker Jim Wright amid an ethics scandal in 1989, Foley was elected to the speakership unopposed by his Democratic colleagues.
The hyper partisanship stemming from the 1989 ethics scandals, which forced the resignations of Wright and Tony Coelho, D-CA., the majority whip, had members of both parties praying that Foley’s speakership would usher in a new era of civility. In his inaugural speech, Foley championed for “a spirit of cooperation and increased consultation.”
While Foley was widely respected on Capitol Hill for his open-mindedness, at the same time, many statist liberals thought it made him a weak leader. Foley believed that his efforts at bipartisanship were in the interest of better public policy. He did, however, recognize how such tactics sometimes embolden the opposition’s position.
“I think I am a little cursed with seeing the other point of view and trying to understand it,” Foley said.
Under nearly four decades of Democratic despotism, Republicans become used to the common Democratic steamroll tactics in House. So, both parties were shocked and confused one summer day in 1989 when, during a voice vote in the chamber intended simply to showcase the Republican opposition to a bill, Foley ruled in favor of allowing them a recorded vote on the measure.
“[T]he Democrats just sat there because they didn’t know what to do. I don’t think they knew to ask for a recorded vote because they never had to,” then-Rep. Mickey Edwards, R-OK., chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, told the New York Times. “And at that point, every Republican on the floor rose spontaneously and gave Tom Foley a standing ovation.”
Foley was headed down the same path taken in life by his father, who was a longtime federal judge, as Foley served as a deputy prosecutor for Spokane County and later as the state’s assistant attorney general. His aspirations on Capitol Hill came as he was serving as a special counsel to the Senate Committee of Interior and Insular Affairs.
Then-chairman of the Senate committee, Sen. Henry Jackson, D-WA, pushed Foley to run for Congress. As for Foley, who characterized himself as having a “Type-B”-personality, he spent a long time marinating over his final decision, which came literally at the last minute. Foley was filing the papers to run only minutes before the state deadline.
Foley’s constituents sent him back to Washington after 15 general elections, but as later it would become very difficult for him to hold on to his congressional seat. The first instance of pushback occurred in the 1992 elections, when he won a healthy 55 percent of the vote. But that was down from the 69 percent he garnered just 2 years earlier.
His leadership position, as is still the case, provided the incumbent an advantage. Ironically, in an anti-establishment wave election, it would actually lead to his defeat in the Republican Revolution of 1994.
The Washington state legislature was debating whether or not to enact term limits for both state and congressional representatives, holding them to 6 years in office. Foley, an almost permanent fixture in D.C., was vehemently opposed. He considered his record as an experienced legislator as advantageous, compared to his Republican challenger, George Nethercutt, who had no political experience.
Nethercutt, on the other hand, was a staunch proponent of killing unending tenure, and argued it contributed to the structural problems of the federal government, which is still being debated today.
“Three terms is long enough,” Nethercutt wrote in a campaign brochure. “If you serve longer than that, you’ll become part of the problem.”
Despicably, Nethercutt reneged on his signature campaign promise only 6 years later, when he announced plans to run for reelection a fourth time. Even with significant blowback from supporters of term limits, he stayed in Congress until 2005.
Foley refused to air negative campaign advertisements against Nethercutt, even as the political climate turned increasingly sour. On Election Day, despite national sentiment, the margin was still close, as Foley lost by less than 4,000 votes out of the more than 200,000 cast.
“I’ve had a very long and satisfying political career,” he said. “I am not in any sense bitter. I lost one election in my life; unfortunately, it was the last one.”
The defeat of a sitting speaker of the House for the first time in 134 years underscored the power of the Republican movement. The Republican Revolution ushered in a significant change of leadership styles, as Foley’s successor, Newt Gingrich, R-GA, made significant structural changes to House rules and committees, which enabled him to pass sweeping reform. These very rules were pivotal to Nancy Pelosi, in her quest to swing an iron gavel.
Despite his high-profile defeat, one of Foley’s final acts as Speaker was to stress the spirit of cooperation and fairness. In 1989, when he allowed the Republicans to have their vote, he gave the Republicans a feeling of what it was like to be in the majority. And it was not forgotten. Furthermore, neither was another act we just don’t witness today.
It was the lame-duck session in 1994, just a month after the Republican Party had retaken the House for the first time in four decades with 52 new seats. While the GOP was measuring the curtains for its new majority, one key member of the conference would not be returning — Bob Michel, who was the House Republican leader. He was retiring after a whopping 38 years in Congress, and all of them were spent in the House minority. Michel, as a party leader, would have presided in a majority, but he never had the opportunity to preside over the House. Although Foley would soon be handing the gavel over to a new era of Republican dominance, he allowed Michel to preside over a session.
After leaving Congress, Foley returned to public life only a few years later when President Bill Clinton appointed him as the ambassador to Japan in 1997. In addition to the frequent international travel from his time in Congress, Foley had served on the Council on Foreign Relations, the Trilateral Commission, and as a member of the American-Japan Society, the U.S. China Council, the American Council for Germany, and the Foreign Affairs Council of Washington. He served as ambassador until 2001.
Former House Speaker Tom Foley represents a throw-back to a bygone era, when civility, shared national identity, and the importance of leadership example took priority over radical ideology. Looking back, it was truly only Foley and a few others who restrained the radical left-wing socialist elements that now govern the Democratic Party and the country, with uncompromising, unfair, and uncivil disdain unworthy to sit in the same seat of power as Tom Foley.