Richard Davis: Today's Congress could learn lessons from Tom Foley

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 23 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Speaker of the House John Boehner appeared irrelevant last week as senators crafted a compromise on the government shutdown and the debt ceiling. Boehner’s own efforts to resolve the crisis crumpled in the face of opposition from elements of his own Republican caucus determined to carry on their failed fight against Obamacare. Attempting to meet their demands, Boehner repeatedly promised the debt ceiling and government re-opening votes would not occur without significant changes to Obamacare and spending priorities.

The final vote came when Boehner threw up his hands over the process and ultimately voted against a majority of his own caucus. Eighty-seven Republicans (including Boehner) and all Democrats voted for the Senate-initiated compromise while a majority of the Republican caucus Boehner technically leads voted no. Almost none of what Boehner and the more radical Republicans wanted was included in the final package.

The fault is not entirely Boehner’s. He faces an energized tea party caucus, encouraged by Senators Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Mike Lee. They, in turn, are pressed by right-wing interest groups quick to punish Republicans who negotiate with Democrats. And then there are the Republican activists back in their districts who are livid about Obamacare and threaten to vote against Republican incumbents who don’t wage a holy war against the president and his policies.

The gridlock that faces the nation today was illuminated by another event that occurred last week. Former Speaker of the House Tom Foley, a Democrat from Washington state, died on Friday. Few Americans remember Foley. He served as speaker from 1989 to 1995 and, except for a stint as U.S. Ambassador to Japan, had not been in the public eye since his defeat for re-election in 1994.

Yet, Foley’s passing is a reminder of how much things have changed in Congress, and for the worse. Today’s Congressional leaders, as well as partisans across the nation, could learn some lessons from Foley’s governing style. Here are a few:

Bipartisanship. When Foley became speaker he promised to treat all members fairly, regardless of party. Indeed, even Republicans praised Foley as fair. On one occasion, Foley ruled in favor of a Republican call for a recorded vote on an issue rather than the usual voice vote favored by Democrats. “At that point, every Republican on the floor rose spontaneously and gave Tom Foley a standing ovation,” one Republican House member remembered.

Civility. Foley eschewed the kind of harsh rhetoric that characterizes today’s Congressional leaders. Foley knew what so many political leaders (both Democrat and Republican) have forgotten today – incivility is counter-productive. It is difficult to negotiate across the table with people you have publicly called a coward, extortionist, anarchist, faker, or terrorist. Civility lubricates the process of compromise and conciliation. Not to mention, it is just good manners.

Foley’s style was personally and publicly gracious, even to those he disagreed with. For example, when he won his seat in Congress in 1964, he hosted a reception for the Republican incumbent he had just defeated. In 1994, he gave House Republican Leader Robert Michel the opportunity to preside over the House for a session because Michel, who was retiring that year after 38 years in Congress, had never had that opportunity. And during his own re-election campaign in 1994, Foley declined to run negative ads against the Republican candidate who narrowly defeated him.

Intra-party Diversity. Foley also refused to fit an ideological straitjacket that characterizes too much of partisan politics today. He represented an eastern Washington district that generally voted Republican. He opposed gun control measures for most of his career, supported NAFTA, and sought to convince fellow Democrats to back a tax proposal supported by President Ronald Reagan.

Foley once summed up neatly the difference between his style of governance as a member and leader of Congress and that of some of his successors in the House as well as in the Senate: “I sometimes envy people in the House who are engaged in stopping something. Most of my Congressional career, I’ve had to try to put together coalitions of support…. It’s a lot easier to blow up the bridges and to block the crossings.”

Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.

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