Former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Democrat Tom Foley was swept out of office in 1994 in an election many Republicans referred to as a "Republican Revolution." Foley served from the 89th to 103rd Congress (1965-1995) and was speaker from 1989 to 1995 but fell out of favor with fellow House members following his handling of the House banking scandal of the early 1990s.
Tom Foley was born on March 16, 1929, in Spokane, Washington. His father, Ralph E. Foley, was a lawyer who was Spokane County prosecutor in the 1930s before becoming a superior-court judge for 35 years, the longest tenure in Washington state history. His mother was Helen Marie Higgins.
Although Foley grew up in a middle-class neighborhood populated mainly by Republicans, he gained much sympathy for the less fortunate from his parents and experienced blue-collar life in the summers of his high school years working in the Kaiser Aluminum plant in Spokane. Foley attended Gonzaga High School where he was an indifferent student, even flunking a course in algebra. He was little better at Gonzaga University where he matriculated in 1947. In fact, the dean of the school gave him an ultimatum: improve your grades or leave. Foley left, transferring to the University of Washington from which he earned a B.A. in 1951. He then entered Washington Law School with the goal of becoming a lawyer like his father. He managed to stay only one day, leaving after an assistant dean of the law school described the law as a business. Foley then enrolled in the University of Washington's Graduate School of Far Eastern and Russian Studies. After two years there Foley returned to the law school, graduating with an LL.B. in 1957.
His first legal position was as a partner in the law firm of Higgins and Foley in Spokane soon after graduation. Following in his father's footsteps, he became deputy prosecutor in Spokane County the following year. He held this post for two years while, ironically, also instructing law students at Gonzaga University. In 1960 he became assistant attorney general for the state of Washington.
Foley's first taste of life in the nation's capital came when Senator Henry (Scoop) Jackson, a friend of his father's, hired him as special counsel to the Senate Interior and Insular Affairs Committee in 1961, a post he filled until 1964. At the urging of Jackson, he then ran for Congress from the Fifth District of Washington against a 27-year Republican veteran of the House, Walt Horan. The district was Republican and primarily rural, but it also included Spokane. The seat was considered so secure that no other Democrat had filed for the nomination when Foley made his last-minute decision to do so. Supported by the two Democratic senators from the state and organized labor, and helped by the Lyndon Johnson 1964 landslide, Foley won by a narrow margin in a campaign that was noticeably polite and positive.
Foley entered Congress as a Johnson liberal, supporting Great Society programs and only later opposing the Vietnam War. His positions remained generally liberal during his terms of office. He was pro-choice despite his Catholic background and supported the Equal Rights Amendment. He opposed capital punishment, a constitutional amendment allowing school prayer, aid to the contras, the MX missile, nuclear testing, term limits, and, a notable deviation, gun control. The last position was one in keeping with the traditions of the West and his own district. His popularity slipped in Nixon's re-election victory in 1972, and he almost lost his seat in 1978 and in the Reagan victory in 1980.
In 1968 he married Heather Strachen and continued his steady and unspectacular rise in the House. In 1974 he became chair of the Democratic Study Group, which was energized by the large number of "Watergate" freshmen. Foley led the group's fight to end the seniority system and to open committee hearings. Despite this, he personally refused to help oust 75-year-old W. R. Poage of Texas, the chairman of the House Agricultural Committee on which Foley served. A grateful Poage, although defeated, nominated Foley for the chairmanship. Foley won and at age 45 became the youngest chair of a major congressional committee and the first westerner to chair the House Agricultural Committee. As chairman until 1981 and vice chair until 1986, he tried to re-orient the Agriculture Department toward nutrition and consumer interests instead of being primarily involved with livestock and grain producers.
Foley's next major post was as head of the Democratic Caucus, defeating Shirley Chisholm in 1976. He further solidified Democratic support for his mediating ways so that when John Brademus of Indiana lost his seat in the 1980 election, Foley assumed his position as House majority whip, the third highest ranking position in party leadership. Foley served in that capacity for three terms, through 1986. He moved up to House majority leader in 1987 as a consequence of Jim Wright vacating that position to assume the speakership. As majority leader in the trying years of 1987-1989 when the Iran-Contra affair was in the headlines, Foley proved to be a calming influence in his service on the Permanent Select Committee To Investigate Covert Arms Transactions with Iran. As a result, members of the House voted him its most respected member in 1988 and again in 1989.
In 1989 Jim Wright ran afoul of the House Ethics Committee, which charged him with financial improprieties, and he resigned as speaker. Foley then became the 49th Speaker of the House, the highest leadership post. In the early 1990s, Foley fell victim to controversy over House members' bounced checks at the House bank. Foley was sharply criticized by members of his own party for how he handled the House banking scandal, which received much media attention and raised the ire of the electorate. His greatest sin, according critics, was not protecting his own flock in the House. At least one member called for Foley to resign his post at the end of 1992. "We're angry he knew about this mess and sat on his duff for three years," said one senior House member in 1992. "He was so concerned with the institution that he sacrificed his members."
Back home in Washington, members of an electorate said to be 60 percent in favor of term limits became incensed at Foley's pursuit of a 16th consecutive term in the House. Foley filed a lawsuit against a state initiative to limit terms, challenging such limits on federal officeholders as unconstitutional. In the state's September 1994 open primary, five Republican and Democratic candidates split the vote, allowing Foley to just squeak by with a meager 35 percent. It was the second-worst showing of his 16 congressional campaigns. Foley's Republican challenger, George Nethercutt, capitalized on public sentiment and pledged to serve no more than three terms if elected. Further, he said, "I would never sue my constituents to save my job."
Foley's reelection campaign labored under at least two other burdens. Voters, who in the past had been accustomed to Foley's pork barrel-style politics, were growing doubtful such tactics were good for the country. "It's basically pork. Even though we live here, it just isn't right," said one voter. Foley also angered gun-toting voters in his state with efforts to pass a ban on assault-weapons. National Rifle Association (NRA) advertisements opposing the ban featured Foley as a target for defeat.
Foley lost to Nethercutt in the "Republican Revolution" of 1994. Representative Newt Gingrich, a Republican from Georgia, became speaker of the House and was considered by many to carry the banner of incoming Republicans, at least for the time being. Foley was critical of Republicans' description of their sweeping victory in the House. "They were wrong to use the term 'Republican Revolution.' This country isn't revolutionary. It's centrist." Foley later became chairman of President Bill Clinton's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.
Further Reading on Tom Foley
Additional information on Tom Foley can be found in J. Newhouse "Profile," New Yorker (April 10, 1989); H. Gorey, "Waiting for Opportunity To Knock," TIME (June 5, 1989); The New York Times (August 18, 1982, and June 2, 7, and 8, 1989); A. Z. Posner, "Friendly Foley," New Republic (August 8-15, 1988); S. V. Roberts, "After Wright's Fall," U.S. News and World Report (June 5, 1989); and Fred Barnes, "Mission Accomplished," New Republic (July 3, 1989).
Additional Biography Sources
Tumulty, Karen, "The Price of Pork," Time, November 7, 1994, v144, n19, p. 37.
Smolowe, Jill, "Speaker Foley's Folly," Time, October 10, 1994, v144, n15, p. 30.
Borger, Gloria, "Foley is Fighting Back, But Can He Save Himself?" U.S. News & World Report, April 13, 1992, p. 31.
Blow, Richard, "Foley Flexes," Mother Jones, January 1993.