Feature

Thomas S. Foley, 1929–2013

The House speaker who sought consensus

As speaker of the House, Thomas Foley saw the truly hard work of Congress as creating coalitions across party lines. “It’s a lot easier to blow up bridges and to block the crossings,” he said, speaking as the most prominent casualty of the Republican uprising that swept out the Democratic majority in 1994 and launched the era of sharper partisanship that continues today.

Foley, the son of a judge in Spokane County, Wash., “established a reputation for civility from the get-go,” said the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. After defeating 22-year Republican incumbent Walt Horan to become a congressman in 1964, he threw a reception “for the man he defeated.” Foley’s 1975 election as chairman of the House Agriculture Committee was the first step on his ascent to the highest rank of party leadership.

In the 1980s Foley “became known as a consensus builder,” said The Washington Post. He helped forge a compromise with Republicans, for example, to pass a balanced-budget act in 1985. Yet after he became speaker in 1989, the Republican National Committee targeted him by releasing a memo—titled “Tom Foley: Out of the Liberal Closet”—that compared his voting record with that of openly gay Rep. Barney Frank. President George H.W. Bush called the memo “disgusting,” but it forced Foley to deny he was homosexual.

As speaker, Foley appealed to Republicans to “put away bitterness and division and hostility,” said The New York Times. But the GOP chafed at the Democrats’ 40-year grip on the House majority. Foley angered Republicans by forcing Bush to raise taxes as part of a deficit-reduction deal and then passing President Bill Clinton’s 1993 budget bill raising them even further. His support for a 1994 ban on assault weapons was the last straw; the RNC campaigned to “De-Foley-ate Congress,” and the speaker was defeated in midterm elections by lawyer George Nethercutt.

Republican Whip Newt Gingrich called Foley’s defeat—the first of a sitting speaker in 132 years—the “ground zero” of his revolutionary sweep of the House. When asked if he had any advice for Gingrich, who succeeded him, Foley upheld his courtly reputation. Remember, he said,“You are the speaker of the whole House, and not just one party.”

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