America lost an unusual hero in the passing of Speaker Foley. Foley was political yet he insisted on fairness to all his opponents. He practiced the standards he held himself to. That represented his political integrity and it went to his very core.
I began working with Tom Foley on public issues from his earliest days as a House member. He represented a district that covered Spokane, and its surrounding area. The district had been Republican for years. Foley’s ability to be a listener led people far more conservative than he to support his reelection for 14 more terms.
I. Early House Days
From his very start in office Foley paid attention to institutional issues. In 1965 two nominal Democrats, one very senior, had supported Barry Goldwater for President. The Democratic Study Group, a band of reform Democrats, had said constituents can elect whomever they want but that does not entitle an officeholder to the benefits of seniority if he supports the Presidential candidate of the Republicans. Foley embraced that standard as one that strengthens the House as an institution.
While serving the important interest of his constituency–an Air Force base, wheat farmers, need for water– Foley always understood, in the fashion of the great British conservative Edmund Burke, that he is also a Member of the House. The social covenant, that as a people we are responsible for one another, was part of Foley’s inner core. His sharp political sense recognized that in a changing House the ease of supporting wheat, hogs, cotton could not last.
Foley, the practitioner of politics, recognized that politics is about addition. That is the genesis of strengthening the Food Stamp program, resisted initially by Southern Democrats, and ultimately overcome by Foley’s persuasive abilities to show that unless they supported food stamps their agriculture programs were goners. At the same time Foley, along with the late Phil Burton (D-Ca), persuaded urban liberals that like it or not the political price of food stamps was support for the agricultural programs.
II. Abuse if Power in the House
The House in the 1960s and early 70s was largely dominated by Southern chairman who arbitrarily blocked legislation and abused their power as Committee Chairs. After the 1974 elections, in my Common Cause capacity, working closely with the Executive Director of the Democratic Study Group (DSG), we issued a report that documented these abuses of power.
For several weeks this report was the hottest reading item on Capitol Hill. The 1974 elections brought 75 new Democrats to the House. Foley headed the DSG. He was a leader of reform minded Democrats that wanted to modify the seniority system by strengthening the House Democratic Party’s accountability in choosing Committee Chairs. The first Chair to be elected under the new procedures was Bob Poage (D-Tex) the conservative Chair of Agriculture. With typical grace Foley nominated and supported Poage but the liberals did not. Poage was defeated as were two other prime abusers.
Foley became Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.
III. Foley as Agriculture Chairman
Foley made his Committee a model of fair procedures. Republicans had chances to offer Amendments. But Foley’s talents as a consensus builder shone through. Building on his earlier efforts to get an understanding that each side, among Democrats, should vote for crops and food stamps, he linked the two in one bill. His political genius led to legislative accomplishments that helped lick America’s hunger and malnutrition problems. Tom Foley was at the center of the solution.
IV. Moving Up the Leadership Ranks
This is a familiar story. Foley is chosen by Speaker O’Neill as Majority Whip. O’Neill
recognizes that Foley’s strength is that he is respected by Democratic liberals, moderates and conservatives. The leadership position gives Foley a chance to also play a role in foreign policy including trade and arms control, long standing interests of Foley.
I know from my own work in those days heading The Professionals’Coalition for Nuclear Arms Control (PCNAC) that Foley contributed to our framing the opposition to building the MX Missile, restraining the recklessness of Star Wars, working with resisters on the House Armed Services Committee to checkmate irresponsible weapons madness.
Foley was a powerful voice for restraint when that was needed and an equally powerful voice for finding a way to stop the MX missile, curtail Star Wars and find ways to support arms control.
V. Foley as Speaker
Foley brought an unaccustomed civility to the House on his part. Gingrich and the Yahoo Republicans would have none of that. The Yahoos were not institutionally minded. Foley was a consensus builder, a believer in fair procedures, a listener.The Yahoos were denouncers and destroyers.
In the heat of the 1994 campaign, shortly before the House adjourned, Foley who came from a passionate gun rights district, insisted that the House had a responsibility to deal with gun control including a ban on assault weapons. It would have been easy for Foley to block that vote. Foley refused. The House voted on the issue and the assault weapon ban was enacted.
Contrast that with Speaker Boehner’s refusal to allow the House to vote on a clean Continuing Resolution that would have opened government many days sooner.
At times wildfire passions course through Congress centering on Amending the Constitution. Foley, tempered the passions, with his balance and creativity to direct those immediate passions–Prayer Amendments, Flag Burning, Balanced Budget– away from constitutional amendments to legislative approaches.
Foley’s voice, his prudent and reasoned judgments, are missing now. We need to hear his quality of thought, always said clearly and wisely.
October 19, 2013