What once were virtues now are Foley's faults Speaker did not see House Bank fallout

March 15, 1992|By Adam Clymer | Adam Clymer,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- When Thomas S. Foley became speaker of the House in 1989, he was hailed for fairness, patience and deference to his colleagues, a welcome change for lawmakers after the brief, abrasive reign of Jim Wright.

Today, as the House looks foolish over its bounced checks, that same Foley leadership style is under attack.

Many lawmakers complain that Mr. Foley failed to appreciate the political implications of the House Bank affair, leaving most of them exposed to a general accusation of a cover-up while seeming to concentrate on meticulous fairness toward the worst offenders.

Some of the damage may have been curtailed by House votes last week to make public the names of 355 offenders.

The votes came after Mr. Foley bowed to overwhelming desire in both parties to do so. But his shift is only another measure of the fact that Mr. Foley's strength is more in responding to than in anticipating political problems.

The Washington state Democrat often seems more involved with the arguable unfairness of an issue raised by newspapers or talk shows than with its political effect.

He does not move rapidly to make committee chairmen reconcile differences on issues like health care reform, perhaps because as a former committee chairman himself -- the first to reach the speaker's chair since 1940 -- he sympathizes with chairmen's problems and prerogatives.

But a leader of Congress today has to exist in a political world very different from the one that Sam Rayburn inhabited half a century ago. Newspapers, television and radio are far more interested in personalities and more ready to report scandal than they used to be -- and relatively less concerned with congressional legislation, a subject that rarely makes the evening news.

Representatives want more from their leaders and are generally prepared to give less back.

Last fall, there was little criticism of Mr. Foley's insistence that the ethics committee take a careful look at the records of the House Bank before anyone was identified as an abuser of checking privileges.

His argument for such a judicious approach to a murky affair that had bad record-keeping at its heart was not condemned. But today it is viewed more as a delaying action that failed to foresee public reaction.

That is only one of the ironies in Mr. Foley's situation, one in which some angry Democrats predict that he will face opposition for re-election as speaker, a very rare challenge to authority in the House.

Another is that his deepest commitments are to the House itself, not so much to policy or partisan goals. When he was elected speaker, he told the House that serving in it had been "the great and abiding pride of my life."

"I believe that public service is a free gift of a free people," he said.

No one thought he was making it up in that speech. As he said, "We are proud to call this the People's House, the fundamental institution of American democracy."

And 14 months ago he was proud of the House as it debated with dignity and respect the issue of going to war with Iraq, even though his argument, for relying longer on sanctions against Iraq, was defeated.

But today it is the reputation of the House that is imperiled, despite his concern but perhaps in part because of his style.

A third irony is that his sort of leadership is weakened by the deep divisions in the Republican minority. In most political contexts, a divided enemy makes leadership easier.

But the differences of approach between the minority leader, Rep. Robert H. Michel of Illinois, and his No. 2, Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, makes Mr. Foley's life harder because he cannot count on Mr. Michel to maintain the collegiality the two of them are comfortable with.

Mr. Michel supported Mr. Foley's approach with the ethics committee, but in the end it was Mr. Gingrich's approach that prevailed.

Mr. Gingrich's view that attacking the institution is in the Republicans' long-range interest has made the House a more grating place to work. The speaker denounced the Georgian early Friday for a "despicable" attack on an aide to the speaker.

Mr. Gingrich had implied that the aide had covered up cocaine-selling at the House Post Office. "There is a point," Mr. Foley said, "at which the patience of decent people ought to say 'enough.' "

That was Mr. Foley at his best, counterpunching with an air of outraged dignity at a Republican who does more to unify the House Democrats, at least on a short-term basis, than anyone else.

Reacting to Mr. Gingrich's demands for sudden tax-cutting votes enabled the Democrats to end the last session with some measure of accomplishment on banks, savings and loan associations and crime, or at least without provable inaction.

Early Friday, Mr. Gingrich seemed almost gleeful when he announced, "Other scandals are coming."

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