YOU'VE probably seen House Speaker Tom Foley on television recently answering a question or two on the progress of budget negotiations with the White House. He looks like a graying, friendly uncle who is a voice for moderation and kindliness -- even toward his political opponents -- the Republicans.
That's the public Tom Foley. The political infighter who presides over the House of Representatives is quite another Tom Foley. Listen to the self-styled "tough guy" in the House -- James A. Traficant Jr., D-Ohio. The subject is the George Bush-Tom Foley pay raise for the top 3,000 officials in government, including members of Congress. Traficant went to the floor of the House last November to denounce the $35,000 pay grab the House leadership was ramming through without permitting amendments even to be offered. "The government is broke," cried the outspoken Traficant. Here was the House raising members' pay by a huge amount to $125,000 a year, plus generous increases in pensions and other benefits.
Why, then, would the tough guy of the House not join the small group of representatives supporting a measure to repeal the pay grab? Why wouldn't Traficant move aggressively to get the bill higher visibility?
"I can't afford to jeopardize my district," he said. "I'll be supporting a recorded vote" if the bill reaches the floor, he added, "but I can't be part of an organized effort." Traficant was alluding to water projects for his district that are part of pending legislation. The House leadership just might decide to reduce their likelihood of passage.
Again and again, we found that House members who voted against the pay grab last year are reluctant to take a stand for repeal this year. A large minority of 174 members voted against the pay raise. Yet only 25 of these are signed on to repeal it.
Fear grips the House of Representatives. The junior members fear their masters in the House more than they fear the overwhelming majority (80 percent, according to polls) of Americans who don't think Congress has done anything to deserve a raise, especially at a time of huge deficits, budget cuts and scandals.
Rep. Bruce A. Morrison, D-Conn., now running for governor of his state, voted "no" on the raise last year. He would like to take a more active role in behalf of repeal, but he is worried about an immigration bill he is trying to move through Congress. Why would he think that the House leadership of Tom Foley would be mean-spirited enough to retaliate on this legislation? Because that is the real world of congressional politics.
Rep. Doug Walgren, D-Pa., co-sponsored the repeal legislation, but he is loath to upset Foley's ally on pay raises, John D. Dingell, D-Mich., who is not reluctant to exercise retaliatory power against a junior fellow member of his Committee on Energy and Commerce.
Then there is populist Lane Evans, D-Ill., who signed on the repeal legislation but is not actively working for its passage. Seems he is worried about Foley and friends undermining an Agent Orange bill he is trying to get passed on behalf of afflicted Vietnam War veterans.
The list of similar situations could go on and on. The reaction of citizens outside Washington would be the same, however. How could Foley and his Republican sidekick, Robert H. Michel, R-Ill., be so petty, so vindictive?
One answer is that Foley and Michel score points with the majority of members who voted to raise their salaries and generous pensions at a time when the American people's loss of confidence and disgust with them have reached new levels.
Neither Foley nor Michel will have an opponent as the two stand for re-election next month. So their chief goal is shoring up their own power in the House of Representatives by passing goodies around to fellow happy campers.
Our nation is in crisis. It is more important than ever for political leaders to lead by example rather than by hypocrisy. The moral authority of a democratic government is at stake.