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Remembering Tom Foley with a look back at his time as House speaker

October 18, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Tom Foley, former speaker of the House and long-time Democratic congressman, has died at the age of 84. Congressional correspondent Kwame Holman digs into the NewsHour archives to review highlights from Foley's career and the legacy he left on the House of Representatives.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, we remember former Speaker of the House Tom Foley, who died today.

His long political career stretched across another period of bitter congressional battles over budget priorities. That meant he was a frequent guest on the NewsHour, explaining what was going on.

We took advantage of our archives to put together this timely look at a different era in Washington.

Kwame Holman reports.

REP. TOM FOLEY, D-Wash.: I do, so help me God.

KWAME HOLMAN: Tom Foley was elected speaker in 1989, after Texas Democrat Jim Wright resigned amid an ethics scandal.

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Five years later, the tidal wave of the Newt Gingrich-inspired Republican Revolution swept the Washington State congressman and his Democrats out of power. Foley served 30 years in the House, including more than five as speaker, and never spent a single day in the minority.

REP. TOM FOLEY: You have bestowed upon me a great honor and a responsibility. I will devote every ability I have to justify and maintain your confidence and the integrity of this House of Representatives, and protect the rights and welfare of all members, so that we can fulfill our high responsibility in representing the people of this nation.

KWAME HOLMAN: Later, in that day in June 1989, Foley spoke with Jim Lehrer about his new role.

JIM LEHRER: Do you have one thing in mind that you could tell me now that you’re going to change as speaker the way the House of Representatives operates?

REP. TOM FOLEY: It’s not one thing or one day.

These tendencies towards recrimination and rancor developed over many months, some would say over many years. I think what’s essential to turn this back toward a mood of conciliation and mutual respect is the fairness that I intend to demonstrate. If I have any capacity to do this, I intend to exercise it, to convince all of the members of the House that I am going to be impartial, that I’m going to conduct the speakership with absolute fairness toward both parties.

KWAME HOLMAN: Foley would become a staunch ally of President Bill Clinton after his election in 1992. As speaker, Foley helped shepherd key Clinton initiatives through Congress, including his 1993 economic plan.

But that highly contentious vote ultimately would cost many Democratic lawmakers their jobs in the 1994 midterms. Foley himself became the highest-profile casualty of a 54-seat Democratic loss and the first speaker since the Civil War to lose his gavel at the ballot box.

A month after his defeat, Foley appeared on the NewsHour, telling Margaret Warner about his hopes for the direction of the House and the politics of the country moving forward.

REP. TOM FOLEY: There had been a tendency of some Republicans to try to use denigration of the institution of the House of Representatives as a means of achieving power.

I think, as a political device, of kind of bringing the House in disrepute in order to effect a change in the majority, there’s been a policy on some quarters of doing that. Beyond that, individual Democrat, as well as Republican members have sometimes used their own attack on the House as a kind of foil against their own better service. I hope that comes to an end.

KWAME HOLMAN: Foley went on to say:

REP. TOM FOLEY: This is the people’s body, the House of Representatives, and I think the overwhelming number of members who serve here, Democrats and Republicans, try very hard under a very serious opportunity and honor to represent the people that send them there, and I think the institution may, I hope, improve in public confidence in the future.

MARGARET WARNER: So that’s an irony. You’re saying that, with the Republicans taking over, you think some of this tearing down will stop, actually.

REP. TOM FOLEY: If you’re in command of the ship, at least for a time, you have to declare it fit and seaworthy and fit and so on. I think that will — that will happen.

KWAME HOLMAN: Ten years later, Foley appeared on the NewsHour with the man who’d led the Republican charge in 1994, his successor, Newt Gingrich.

They discussed an issue still very much part of debate in the House, including in the recent budget standoff, a speaker’s decision to bring up legislation that lacks the support of a majority of the party in power.

REP. TOM FOLEY: You don’t want to routinely be bringing bills to the floor that a majority of your own party is opposed to. The speaker is the speaker of the whole House. He’s also the leader of his party in the House of Representatives. I think you don’t want to bring bills to the floor that a majority of your party is opposed to routinely.


REP. TOM FOLEY: But, sometimes, when a great issue is at stake, I think you need to do that.

KWAME HOLMAN: And that is what current Speaker John Boehner did this week, as the House approved a plan ending the government shutdown and raising the debt limit with most of his Republicans voting no.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Boehner today paid tribute to Speaker Foley as a forthright and warmhearted public servant, and said the Democrat had a solid sense of fairness, which remains a model, he said, for any speaker or representative.

And President Obama called Foley a legend of the Congress with an ability to — quote — “find common ground with members of both parties.”