Foley Presides For Last Time -- Speaker Says Goodbye, Reflects On Career And Voters' Mood
Seattle Times Staff: AP
WASHINGTON - Around 10 last night, long after most in this city had gone home, Rep. Tom Foley slipped onto the speaker's dais, pounded the gavel one last time and said goodbye.
Yesterday was officially the last day of work for the 103rd Congress, and one long series of farewells for the Spokane attorney who during 30 years in the House of Representatives rose to become the most powerful man in Congress.
Although he technically will remain speaker until the new Congress is sworn in in Jan. 4, this was the last day he would preside, set the agenda, make things happen and rub elbows with colleagues he has known for decades.
Foley, 65, had much to reflect on. A nice guy to a fault, he will go down in history as the speaker who was in charge when the House went Republican for the first time since the early years of the Eisenhower administration.
Often criticized for not punishing Democrats who left the fold, Foley reasoned that speakers no longer wield the power Rep. Jim Wright of Texas once had. It sounded reasonable - until Democrats lost control of the House and speaker-to-be Newt Gingrich began molding their GOP replacements to his will.
Foley said yesterday there was really not much he would change about his final two years in the House and the support he gave President Clinton.
"I always thought the first vote you had to get was your own," was Foley's way of saying he could live with himself.
He did not, however, offer any great insight into what had happened to him and his fellow Democrats. He said it was clear the public was dissatisfied about a lot of things and that its general malaise was, in part, a product of grumbling within an institution that flogs itself regularly.
"Members of the House have followed the practice of harshly blaming the institution," said Foley. "The president speaks for the administration. You don't have an agency head getting up and saying the president is doing a lousy job. The courts decide things in chambers. Congress is the most open institution in the country."
It doesn't, however, play well on television.
"The public wants everyone to be in agreement," said Foley. "I hear people say, `Why can't Congress get together and do the right thing?' "
That's a complex question that wasn't effectively addressed by Democrats who controlled the House, Senate and White House during a period of economic growth. Somehow the message of recovery, of working to get dangerous guns off the streets and to balance the budget didn't get through to voters.
"I think we obviously failed to explain ourselves," said Foley. "People believed, by a majority, that we hadn't reduced the deficit.
"There was a dramatic difference between the perception people had and the objective facts. I'm willing to take responsibility on the congressional side; we didn't explain the facts well."
Foley recalled one House member's frustration with trying to get the Democrats' message to voters. In a close re-election campaign, he kept telling business organizations that in an attempt to bring the budget under control, Congress had frozen all discretionary spending. They didn't believe him until he started carrying around Newsweek and Time magazine stories that verified his claims.
Foley will leave a House of Representatives people don't trust or understand very well.
He cites a focus group that was asked what it would be like to go to dinner at the home of a member of Congress.
One participant said he'd be picked up by a limo and taken to a big mansion where servants served him food he'd never seen and didn't know how to eat.
Foley puts on an apron and serves pasta to his guests. If that message made it back to Spokane, it didn't sink in.
Foley is proudest of civil-rights legislation he voted for, his defense of the Constitution against populist amendments, the collapse of the Soviet Union, his work with farmers in his district and the progress the Clinton administration has made in cutting the deficit.
None of that seemed to matter this election. Voters reacted to his support of gun-control measures, his lawsuit challenging the state's term-limits law and a general dissatisfaction with the status quo.
No episode sums up the dissatisfaction more than an encounter Foley had with a farmer in the closing stages of his re-election campaign.
The farmer told the person third in line to be president, a person he'd known all his life, that he knew it was foolish to vote against the speaker, that it was like shooting himself in the foot, but that he was going to do it anyway.
"People are sending a number of messages here," said Foley. "They do not like what's happening in society."
YIELDS CHAIR TO MICHEL
As the 103rd Congress drew to a close, Foley symbolically yielded his chair as speaker to Minority Leader Bob Michel, R-Ill., who is retiring this year.
Michel served 38 years - all as a member of the minority - and he gleefully banged the gavel to pass a resolution praising Foley for his tenure.
As he bade farewell to the chamber, Foley said:
"Thank you, I salute you. And I wish you all, those of you who are leaving with me, and those who will be part of the 104th Congress - I wish to all who follow in this great responsibility that they may have some of the same satisfactions and the same great opportunities which I have had and for which I will always be deeply, deeply grateful.
"Thank you. Goodbye."
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