Foley under Siege

March 29, 1992

House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, the highest-ranking Democratic office-holder in the land, finds his leadership in question, his minions out of control and his beloved Congress at the bottom of the heap in public esteem. Scandal and setback are his daily fare, raising speculation that there may be a move in the next Congress to oust him and institute reforms he has

resisted until recently.

The latest troubles to hit the Oregon Democrat:

* His wife, Heather, an unpaid member of his staff, was called to testify before a federal grand jury investigating criminal activity at the House Post Office and possible cover-up attempts by persons answerable to the speaker;

* In a House vote, Mr. Foley was unable to muster even a simple majority, let alone the two-thirds majority required to overturn President Bush's veto of the Democrats' election-year tax bill. There is no modern precedent for such a failure.

Four times, to avoid further humiliation, he has been forced to delay a vote on another leadership initiative -- this one to repudiate the 1990 budget agreement so that defense savings could be spent on domestic programs rather than reduce a record $400 billion deficit. That bill is just another quixotic challenge to the president that will not prevail.

Coming on top of the House bank scandal, which Mr. Foley repeatedly tried to deflect, and public ire over the surreptitious methods used to approve a congressional pay raise, the speaker is in such disrepute that Republicans are gleeful and his fellow Democrats grumbling and worried. Mr. Bush, sensing an election-year opening, charged in his veto message that Congress "is no longer accountable to individual American citizens and voters, and this must change."

Whether change will come at the polls in November, or through term-limitation drives or by instituting badly needed reforms on Capitol Hill is a matter largely out of Mr. Foley's hands. A genial, well-meaning fellow, averse to personal confrontation, it is his lot to preside over an institution that resists discipline, mocks collective and individual responsibility and exhibits an arrogance borne of a 96-percent re-election rate for incumbents.

Although the speakership is much-diminished since the days of Sam Rayburn, Mr. Foley cannot escape personal blame for his current problems. In both the House bank and House Post Office scandals, he was slow to take remedial action and overly protective of personnel implicated in hanky-panky or lax oversight. The result has put all lawmakers under a cloud -- Democrats especially -- and they do not appreciate it. In political circles, a speaker's first obligation is to protect the rear ends of the rank and file.

There are moves afoot to set up a bipartisan commission to examine congressional shortcomings and recommend remedies. Dandy, though we have heard that song before. Speaker Foley may not be the problem -- certainly not the whole problem -- but he is hardly the solution, either.

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