SPOKANE — With former House Speaker Tom Foley in declining health, friends are taking time to remember the achievements of the Democratic congressman who represented Eastern Washington in Congress for three decades.
Foley, a Spokane native, has a variety of ailments and is in hospice care in the Washington, D.C., area, where he has lived most of his adult life, associates said.
The first speaker from west of the Rocky Mountains, Foley, 84, rose higher in the federal hierarchy than any other Washingtonian. As speaker he was second in line for president.
“He was amazingly effective at bringing people of different views together and finding compromises,” said Cornell Clayton, director of the Foley Institute for Public Policy at Washington State University in Pullman.
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For instance, Foley was an architect of the system that saw money for farm programs and food stamps combined in the same spending bill, Clayton said. That way the programs were guaranteed to win support from urban and rural lawmakers, he said.
That compromise is now under attack from House Republicans, who want to see money for food stamps and farm programs separated. That’s a sign of how polarized Washington, D.C., is, Clayton said.
“A bipartisan approach to policymaking was a hallmark of (Foley’s) career,” Clayton said. Foley was also known for his honesty and integrity, Clayton said.
Foley was born in Spokane in 1929 and elected to Congress in 1965. He became the 57th speaker in 1989 and served in that capacity until 1995.
A celebration of Foley’s career was held recently at a downtown Spokane theater. Foley was too ill to attend, but the “living tribute” was taped and sent to him and his wife, Heather.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., called Foley a legend. She credited Foley with helping to bring the 1974 World’s Fair to Spokane, helping expand the power-making capacity of Grand Coulee Dam and helping keep Fairchild Air Force Base open.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, also appearing in a video, recalled getting a lesson in the importance of constituent services when he was approached by a man wearing dentures at an Okanogan County fair.
“I’ll just tell you something about Congressman Tom Foley,” Inslee remembered the man saying. “He got me these teeth.”
Foley in many ways was the last of a generation of lawmakers who saw compromise as a valuable way to make public policy, Clayton said.
Now the parties are much more at war, he said.
Foley was defeated in the “Republican revolution” of 1994, losing his seat to Spokane lawyer George Nethercutt by 4,000 votes. Foley was the first speaker to be ousted since the Civil War.
Republicans have retained the seat, which is now held by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who has risen to third in the party’s House leadership.
After leaving Congress, Foley went on to careers in diplomacy and the law.
He joined a blue-chip law firm in Washington, D.C., by one account earning $400,000, plus fees from serving on corporate boards.
In 1997, he took a pay cut to become ambassador to Japan for four years during the Clinton administration.