FOLEY THE REFORMER AND CONSTITUTIONAL SCHOLAR DIES
Thomas S. Foley, 57th Speaker of the House (1989-1994) died on –October 18, 2013 of complications of strokes at 9:13 AM.
Foley, first elected in 1964, represented the Fifth District of Washington State for thirty years. The son of Judge Ralph and Helen Foley, Foley grew up, in an atmosphere rich with politics (his father was an elected state Superior Court judge for a record 35 years) that included dinner conversations with then Senator Scoop Jackson. Certainly, his father Ralph was an enormous influence on Foley and inspired the evenhandedness and judicial nature that marked Foley’s long career in the Congress.
Following the wishes his father, a respected judge and former prosecutor, Foley graduated from Gonzaga Prep and attended Spokane’s Gonzaga University. After several years at GU, he transferred to the University of Washington from which he received a Bachelor of Arts degree and moved on to graduate from UW’s Law school in 1957.
After completing law school, Foley returned to Spokane, practiced law and then joined the Spokane County Prosecutor’s office. About that time of his life, Foley said “I had more power as a prosecutor than at any other time in my life.” It was during this time that Foley taught constitutional law at Gonzaga University Law School in Spokane, Washington. It gave him a basis for understanding the provisions of the Constitution and the reasons for each provision.
In 1960, he joined the office of the State of Washington Attorney General’s office.
In 1961 in a major career move he moved to Washington, DC to become a special counsel to Senator Henry M. (Scoop) Jackson. Scoop was a rising political and institutional power in the Senate and chairman of the Senate Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs.
In 1964 Scoop recruited four young political aspirants to run for the House in Washington State. It was a national landslide year for Democrats. All of Scoop’s choices won; Tom Foley’s narrow victory over a twenty two year incumbent was by far the most surprising.
Foley’s career in public service was influenced by his father’s traits of courtesy, patience and a sense of public responsibility. But in 1965 little did anyone know that the urbane six foot four young lawyer from Spokane would emerge as a leading voice of Congressional reform and a champion of the integrity of the US Constitution. His rise up the ladder in what was a very tradition laden House was aided by his uncommon ability to forge a following from southern conservatives, westerners and urban liberals.
Contrary to the public perceptions about politicians, Foley was always a kind man who never spoke badly about anyone either publicly or privately. He was almost saintly in this respect, as though he had taken a vow to always see the positive in people. Foley thought more was to be gained in both life and politics by listening and respecting differences.
Assigned to the House Committee on Agriculture when he was sworn in as a Congressman, he became its chairman in 1975, Foley took a strong interest in the problems of hunger across the United States. The Committee was and remained for years a political bastion of southern and rural conservatives whose main interests were crops and livestock.
However, in the late 1960s, when medical teams reported widespread hunger and malnutrition in very poor parts of the country, especially among children, Foley led House efforts to expand and improve the then-very-small food stamp and nutrition programs, greatly expanding and spreading them nationwide. He built bipartisan House support for these reforms and worked with Senators Robert Dole and George McGovern to pass a battery of measures in the 1970s that transformed food stamps.
In the late 1970s, medical teams returned to very poor areas of the country and reported dramatic reductions in hunger and the near-elimination of childhood diseases caused by malnutrition. They credited the reforms Foley and his Senate allies had engineered as the pivotal factor behind the improvements.
“He was a giant,” noted Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, who headed the Food Stamp Program in the Carter Administration and worked closely with Foley. “He combined intense knowledge of the program and ways to strengthen it with a keen sense of political strategy. In addition, he was deeply respected by both sides of the aisle in a way that was unusual then and is even more unusual today. He drew on all of these skills to craft and pass legislation that has helped tens of millions of low-income Americans.”
Despite representing a giant wheat producing district in a politically conservative stretch of America, Foley became a champion of civil liberties and respect for the Constitution. He engineered the defeat of an anti-flag burning Constitutional amendment and worked to prevent other amendments he thought harmful to the Constitution such as prayer in the public school and term limits for Members of Congress. Foley believed the Constitution was very clear in its intent and that voters had an opportunity every two years to term limit any incumbent of the House or Senate running for reelection. Although his views were validated by the Supreme Court (U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton), the fact that he publicly became involved in a law suit to declare the State of Washington’s term limits unconstitutional was politically unpopular at home. His willingness to take political risks on a point of constitutional principle came to play a role in his defeat for reelection in 1994.
Foley’s prominence in the leading internal reform organization of the House, the Democratic Study Group, did not prevent Majority Leader Jim Wright from naming him Majority Whip, third in command of the House Majority. Foley was a continuation of a remarkable run of Irish Americans in the leadership of the House. Like Tip O’Neill he was a large and formidable figure with a bottomless well of humorous stories that served to break political tensions and bring people to negotiations that helped move the institution forward. It was at this time that Foley had a chance to display his remarkable skills in foreign affairs. He became O’Neill’s point man on the contentious issues of Northern Ireland and in bringing about a bipartisan show of support for the Reagan’s Administration invasion of Grenada.
Foreign policy issues, whether about the policy or the process, increasingly drew his attention. Foley was a prominent figure in the anti-Contra furor in the House and opposed the first Iraq war. Ireland was also never far from his mind and was inspired by the political bravery of John Hume later a Nobel Peace prize winner. Foley steadily worked for peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland throughout his Speakership.
Foley’s interest in foreign affairs was never far from the surface and ultimately resulted in his being the only Member of the House who had been awarded the highest honors from our most important allies: Great Britain made him a Commander of the British Empire, Germany gave him its Order of Merit, France conveyed membership in the Legion of Honor and Japan awarded him the Order of the Rising Sun with Paulownia Flowers, Grand Cordon.
House leaders and Members increasingly respected the political skills of their Whip and former Caucus Chair. He became a fixture at Democratic Conventions serving as parliamentarian until he himself became Chairman of the Convention in 1992 when Bill Clinton was nominated for his first term.
Ever faithful to a major wheat producing constituency Foley was an unusual Democrat because he was a steady supporter of trade liberalization and became essential in ensuring significant Democratic support for trade bills that might otherwise have been defeated. He will be most remembered in this respect for moving the North American Free Trade Act through a contentious Congress.
Foley seemed to move naturally to issues revolving around the budget and in 1987 after being elected Majority Leader he became a member of the House Budget Committee. Beginning with the Black Friday stock market crash during the Reagan Administration Foley was present in every negotiation designed to avoid the prolonged standoff that now exists. Foley became very involved with these issues initially when he led the House negotiators in responding to the issues associated with the Gramm – Rudman – Hollings Act and ultimately getting an agreement on that complicated and controversial proposal.
In 1987, Foley chaired the negotiations between the Congress and the Reagan Administration to respond to the stock market “Black Friday” crash. Working with then Secretary of the Treasury James A. Baker III and others, that group under Foley’s leadership came to a consensus that eased the markets and helped strengthen the economy.
Foley was an active participant in the 1990 Budget Summit negotiations on Capitol Hill and at Andrews AFB and it was his leadership and in his office that the eight leaders came together to work out the final agreement that the Congress subsequently passed.
Foley led the House of Representatives during the first two years of President Bill Clinton’s first term. The 1993 economic plan approved under his leadership arguably was important in enhancing the country’s economy and moving toward a balanced budget.
Like O’Neill, Foley was very much a believer that the perfect should not get in the way of the achievable. He was part of the political generation influenced by the Presidency of Lyndon Johnson and the view that half of something was better than none. There was always another day and another Congress to move forward and get the other half done.