MotherJones JA93: Foley flexes

Tom Foley fought a secret war to remain Speaker of the House-and KO’d congressional reform in the process.

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During the 1992 election we heard a lot of talk about cleaning up Congress. Halfway through 1993 people are . . . still talking. Congressional reform, once a political mandate, is stumbling, largely because of resistance from the House Democrats. What happened? Ask Tom Foley.

Every weekday around 5:45 a.m., a black Lincoln Continental pulls up to Thomas Foley’s Capitol Hill townhouse. The driver picks Foley up and takes him to the posh University Club gym on Sixteenth Street NW. The swanky gym recently began admitting women, but with its dark green carpets and wood-paneled walls, it still reeks of old-boyism. The Speaker of the House of Representatives does not slum it.

About three years ago, the 6’4 Foley decided that, at a nudge under three hundred pounds, he was fat. A weight doctor put him on a strict diet and recommended exercise. Now Foley brings his own diet salad dressing to the House dining hall, and is so addicted to his daily workouts that his mood is considerably soured if he misses one. It doesn’t happen often. Even on trips to his congressional district in Spokane, Washington, the morning rituals continue.

Clad in black sweats, a black turtleneck, and lifting gloves, Foley begins his workout with several hundred sit-ups, then launches into the weights: curls with 125 pounds, lat pull-downs with 200, bench- presses with 250. He concentrates intensely, biting off breaths as if they were the ends of cigars. The workout continues for almost two hours, and for his workout partner, a healthy man less than half Foley’s sixty-four years, it is exhausting. It isn’t for Foley.

Although you wouldn’t know it to look at him, Tom Foley has just endured the most nightmarish period of his political life. The last Congress, the 102d, was torn apart by legislative gridlock, political scandal, and public outrage. Sensing that Congress was out of touch with Americans’ economic pain, the public reacted with a “throw the bums out” mentality to revelations about House perks, including the infamous House bank. Members reacted by publicly blaming Foley, a rare vote of no confidence in a sitting speaker. At the time, Foley radiated serenity. Now he admits, “I didn’t know whether my speakership was going to survive.”

After an unprecedented struggle to keep his job, Foley has not only been reelected as speaker, he has tightened his grip on the House of Representatives. “This battle has left Foley in unquestioned control,” claims Connecticut Democrat Sam Gejdenson, a Foley loyalist.

How Tom Foley navigated through his crisis is a story of a master politician fighting for power. According to Foley ally Vic Fazio, a Democratic representative from California, it is also the story of an “inside election,” a power struggle within Congress hidden almost entirely from the American public.

Foley doesn’t like to discuss the backroom politicking involved in that election, and until the writing of this article, he hadn’t. “I am on the side of the question,” he explains, “that says we should never, ever display–unless we have a very public and political reason to do so–our strategy.”

But when prodded, Foley will reveal some details of his fight for the speakership, and so will his allies in the House. Maybe they think it’s good strategy. Maybe they’re relaxed since they won. In any case, the only people who won’t talk are those who criticized Foley in the last Congress. Their newfound reticence is perhaps the best proof of Foley’s renewed control.

Foley’s story is more than a personal drama–it has very public consequences. Under Bill Clinton, Foley hopes to redeem a speakership dogged by political crisis and legislative torpor. He wants desperately to enact the president’s program and make Congress seem productive. But last year the public demanded more. They wanted Foley to reform Congress, to clean up an institution whose members seemed only to care about their jobs and their perks. So far, those demands haven’t been met–and Foley still shows no signs of making reform a priority.

Which raises the question: in the struggle to save his speakership, did Tom Foley forever compromise his ability to reform Congress?


Down to 220 pounds, Tom Foley has an ambling walk and a relaxed physical presence. In his elegant Capitol office, he’ll happily drape his legs over the side of a cloth armchair. Although he dresses in conservative dark suits, a playful streak reveals itself in his Mickey Mouse wristwatch and official MTV gymbag. He speaks slowly, sometimes almost sleepily, and has a gentle chuckle, so it’s easy to assume that Foley’s body and intellect shuffle along together.

That, however, would be a mistaken assumption. For one thing, Foley has a photographic memory, visually and aurally. He can attend a meeting and then recite verbatim what was said and by whom. (If he’s in a good mood, he’ll even mimic their voices.) He can digest massive quantities of information, analyzing the most arcane aspects of health policy or budget negotiations or campaign finance reform.

But if Foley’s mind is like a computer, it’s sometimes like a really old computer that hums and whirs while you wait impatiently for some output. For Foley is a cautious, conservative, and fundamentally reactive thinker. He’d rather promote compromise than flat-out win an argument, and he much prefers logic to emotion. Political fervor on both the left and the right makes him viscerally uncomfortable.

Over the course of Foley’s nearly thirty years in the House, he has risen steadily in the Democratic hierarchy. In 1974, Foley chaired the House Democratic Study Group when it fought for reforms that weakened the power of seniority. The effort earned him the “reformer” label, a tag he’s worn ever since. Yet Foley has always been a very specific kind of reformer: cautious, respectful, someone who works within the system. He believes that reform is a matter of fine-tuning internal House operations, not of fundamental change. On the issue of campaign finance, for example, Foley has never mustered much outrage. Though he’s had only two really close races, in 1978 and 1980, he’s always loaded up on PAC money. In the 1992 election, for example, Foley raked in $561,826 from PACs–almost $20,000 in hard and soft money from the National Rifle Association alone. He won the election handily, with 58 percent of the vote.

Loyalty to political comrades is another Foley trait that abetted his rise. “Keeping your word is a fundamental ethics principle in public life,” he explains. Otherwise the House would be a free-for-all. Foley’s loyalty and reliability paid off for him. In 1981, helped by Tip O’Neill’s patronage, he became the Democratic whip, two steps removed from speaker. In 1987, when O’Neill resigned, Jim Wright of Texas became speaker and Foley moved up to majority leader.

Jim Wright was an aggressive, maybe even bullying, legislator, determined to set and pass the Democratic agenda no matter whose feathers he ruffled. So when it came out that a Wright aide had helped him write a book (on government time), and that special-interest groups had bought thousands of copies, apparently as a fund-raising device, Georgia Republican Newt Gingrich forced an ethics committee investigation. Foley stood fast by his superior. Jim Wright, he said publicly, “hasn’t violated any rules of the House. He is going to remain speaker for this Congress and the next Congress and into the future.” It was, Foley explained, “what’s best for the country and the Congress and the Democratic party.”

As it turned out, Foley was wrong on every count. Wright resigned after being charged with violating sixty-nine House rules. The incident revealed a disturbing tunnel vision in Foley. In standing by an ethically dubious figure to whom he owed loyalty, Foley had misplaced his priorities, confused private loyalties with the public good. He thought that in protecting Wright he was protecting the institution–when in fact Wright was bringing only discredit to Congress.

Foley was loyal to the end–but he didn’t go down with the ship. After Wright announced his pending resignation in May 1989, Foley let it be known to the Democratic caucus, which elects the speaker, that he wanted the job. He got it without challenge.

Foley’s ascension prompted a collective sigh of relief from Republicans and Democrats alike. Foley would stanch Congress’s wounds and usher in an era of bipartisan harmony.

Barely two years later, Foley was knee-deep in a crisis of his own.


At lunch in the members’ dining hall, Foley sits wedged into a corner. “Never expose your back,” he jokes. He orders a Diet Coke, a small salad, and hot water, which he’ll add to the low-cal instant soup he’s brought with him. Later, when Foley gets involved in discussion and the soup is getting cold, a solicitous aide carefully places a saucer over the styrofoam soup container.

Looking back over the 102d Congress, Foley still sounds shell-shocked. He blames public discontent on macro-forces, like the bleak economy and presidential politics. As always, he defends the institution, rejecting any suggestion that Congress is corrupt. “This is a rather hectic life for most members,” he says. “It’s not waltzing across marble ballroom floors, going to wonderfully elaborate dinners every night.”

In general, Foley’s troubles stem from that inability to see Congress as outsiders do, the knee-jerk instinct to cover for the institution built up over twenty-eight years of working there. In a more literal sense, Foley’s troubles were started by Jack Russ, the former House sergeant-at-arms and a notorious fixer. Eager to please the Democratic caucus, Russ got members’ parking tickets canceled and ran the bank that became the source of so much anguish.

Foley and his staff still wince at the memory. None of them really believes that anything improper was going on at the House bank. They point out that no laws were broken, no taxpayer money involved. They don’t even like to call it a “bank,” preferring “so-called bank” or “House disbursing office.”

But in September 1991, when the General Accounting Office released an audit showing that House members had “bounced” 8,331 checks in a year, the public was too incensed to care about semantics. Newspapers editorialized, talk-show hosts raved, and members of Congress squirmed.

Just as he had defended Jim Wright, Foley now stood up for all 325 check bouncers, saying that their names should be kept secret. “I think the member’s word in this matter is trustworthy,” he insisted. When it became clear that the public disagreed, Foley suggested releasing only the names of the twenty-four worst offenders. Finally, under pressure from Republicans who figured that they had nothing to lose from the scandal, Foley consented to full disclosure.

A subsequent fusillade of stories about other “perks”–a term Foley rejects–heightened the already siegelike atmosphere. There was the secretly funded congressional bomb shelter, tucked away at a West Virginia resort. There was free medical care, free parking at National Airport, a discount gym, free car washes, subsidized five-buck haircuts, free flowers from the U.S. Botanic Garden. House post office employees were allegedly selling cocaine.

For members of Congress, the exposure was unnerving. “The number-one priority of every member of Congress is keeping their jobs,” says a senior aide to a Democratic congressman, and those jobs looked none too secure in the first months of 1992. Survival instincts kicking in, members scuttled to find someone to blame. They found Foley. The anger at Foley was so great, said one Democrat in March, that “if there were a secret ballot [for speaker] today, Foley would probably get twenty votes.”

Predictably, Republicans lambasted Foley. Surprisingly, many Democrats added their voices to the chorus. “It is very clear,” said California Democrat George Miller, “that there must be a much sharper edge to the party and its agenda.” “People don’t want another two years like the last two years,” warned Oklahoma Democrat Dave McCurdy.

For Miller, McCurdy, and numerous other Democrats, the criticism of Foley went deeper than his fumbling of the bank scandal. The same qualities that had once made Foley so appealing–his nonpartisanship, his lack of a political agenda, and his deliberative legislative style–they now found exasperating. The time for healing had passed. With President Bush sneering at “the Democrat Congress” as a place of “perks, PACs, and privilege,” House Democrats wanted a fighter.

Foley, however, was temperamentally unsuited for the part. Again and again he had passed up opportunities to score political points at George Bush’s expense. He had allowed the White House to put the cost of cleaning up the savings and loans off-budget, declined to criticize John Sununu for his frequent flying, and only halfheartedly pursued allegations that the Reagan administration had schemed to delay the release of the American hostages in Iran. Granted, Foley had had his shining moments: he almost singlehandedly defeated the anti-flag- burning constitutional amendment, and he ripped into Bush for shutting down the government because of stalled budget negotiations. But, typically, it took other people’s goading to rouse him.

Foley’s nadir came April 2, 1992, when Texas Democrat John Bryant stood on the floor of the House and called on Foley to resign. “For Tom Foley,” Bryant proclaimed, “political combat, even when absolutely necessary in order to present the nation with the Democratic alternative, is to be avoided if at all possible.”

Foley never seriously considered resigning. “Even if I had wished to retire–and I didn’t–part of the problem would have been that in the reality of this world, surviving is part of justification,” he explains. “If I said something like, ‘Take this job and shove it,’ it would have had the impact on the institution of deeply calcifying the scars of the House bank. And I would have become a trophy of those who were bent on inflicting as much pain as possible on this place.”

There was another, more personal reason Foley wouldn’t step down. As one staffer puts it, “To leave then would have been leaving under a cloud.” The scandals stemmed from problems that Foley had “inherited,” as he and his staff say over and over again. They simply “happened on his watch.” He didn’t deserve to be sacrificed.

Instead, Foley played catch-up. He closed the bank and the bomb shelter, raised gym and haircut fees, banned free prescriptions, flowers, and car washes, and appointed new House administrators after Jack Russ resigned. But somehow, in the awkwardly piecemeal process, he made the Democrats look defensive and corrupt, circling the wagons, while the Republicans came out smelling like reformers.


Over the spring and summer of 1992, Foley conferred with the other members of the Democratic House leadership and decided he would have to wage a vigorous campaign to be reelected speaker. “Most of the time, sitting speakers wouldn’t have to go and campaign,” Foley admits. “But there were real questions here whether some people would or would not be able to support.

“The first question was, is somebody going to run [for speaker],” Foley continues. Two names recurred: George Miller, the California Democrat and chairman of the Interior Committee, and Dave McCurdy, from Oklahoma, whom Foley had appointed head of the powerful Intelligence Committee in 1991.

“I talked to Miller, and he indicated he wasn’t going to be a candidate,” Foley says. “But there were consistent reports about Dave.”

Neither Foley nor McCurdy will discuss what next took place between them. But, on the condition that they not be identified, other members and staff did talk about what transpired between the two men. According to these sources, Foley sent emissaries to McCurdy to determine his intentions. Word came back that McCurdy was “actively exploring” the possibility of running for speaker. That news deeply offended Foley, who, having made McCurdy the head of the Intelligence Committee, expected loyalty in return. As former speaker Jim Wright puts it, “Dave should have been grateful enough for his appointment that he felt some responsibility to help the speaker.”

But McCurdy apparently wasn’t grateful, so Foley and the rest of the leadership had to take measures to prevent him or anyone else from running. The way to do that, they knew, was to nail down support early. To find out how much support the speaker had, Foley and his advisors rated all 268 members of the Democratic caucus on “a one- two-three-four-five [scale],” Foley says. “Five being hopelessly opposed, no redeeming possibility. Four being a big problem, very difficult to get this person’s support. Three being, well, we don’t think there’s any great indication either way. Two being a supporter. One being, ‘What can I do to help?'”

Foley won’t disclose how many fours and fives there were, saying only, “There was a core of support, but there was still a lot of unhappiness, a lot of grumbling.” Both the opponents and the supporters had to be wooed. “You really need to verify whether your impressions are correct,” Foley explains. He estimates that he met with more than one hundred members to ask for their support.

“He spent three, four, five hours at dinner, talking to members, listening to their concerns,” says Tom Nides, Foley’s executive assistant at the time. Adds California Democrat and Foley ally Vic Fazio, “People wanted to be wanted. They always like that. And you need to make a message that if they make a commitment to stick with the speaker, there will be a benefit from that. These dinners were an assurance that they were part of the team–not necessarily starters, but part of the team.”

As head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Fazio had his own part to play in Foley’s drama: he gave away money. The DCCC gave $837,478 in cash and $4,135,428 in soft money to Democratic congressional candidates, almost all of it to House candidates. The money wasn’t flat-out bribes in exchange for support, Fazio argues. “We just go out and help the nominees who we think can win, and if they’re happy about the help they get in their very difficult hour, they tend to remember where it came from.”

But Foley wasn’t content to depend on the DCCC. His own PAC, the House Leadership Fund, doled out $230,056 to 134 House candidates. “We did what everyone else does, which is help,” says Tom Nides. “We campaigned for members, we helped them financially.”

By mid-summer, Foley says, he was fairly sure that there would be no challengers for his post. “I was getting very confident,” he admits, “but until the last day of an election, I’m very careful about getting overconfident.”

The great unknown was the November election. If the Democrats had lost more than twenty seats, Foley would probably have paid with his job. And if Bush had won the election, members would have been reluctant to reanoint Foley, who seemed such a patsy to the Republican president.

But of course, Bush wasn’t reelected, and though more than one hundred members retired from Congress or lost their races, the Democrats lost only ten seats in the House. In a sense, the election results actually helped Foley. Many of the worst check bouncers–the ones angriest at Foley–were themselves bounced from office.

A month later, on December 7, 1992, Tom Foley was reelected Speaker of the House–without opposition.


In the weeks that followed, Foley moved to ensure that his position would never again be in jeopardy.

First, he rewarded allies with choice committee assignments. “I’m not some Lyndon Johnsonesque person running around keeping track of slights,” Foley claims. “But on the other hand, the people who clearly have been good friends and have supported you very strongly–I think that’s an obligation.”

In members-only meetings, Foley and the rest of the leadership isolated thirty key positions opening up on powerful committees: Ways and Means, Public Works, Appropriations, Energy, and Commerce. Then they looked at members’ loyalty to the leadership. “People’s voting records and what could be expected of them in the future were heavily considered,” says one leadership source.

The group drew up a list of thirty names they wanted in the positions and, directly and indirectly, presented them to Steering and Policy, the committee responsible for appointments. They got twenty-nine out of thirty. “The membership noticed,” says the source.

There were also punishments. Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat, publicly complained that he had been denied a promised seat on Appropriations because he had bucked the leadership on several important votes. Sources say that other members were denied requested committee assignments for the same reason.

Foley also made sure to court the sixty incoming Democratic freshmen. Breaking with tradition, he appointed one each to Ways and Means and to Appropriations, and two to Steering and Policy. At Foley’s suggestion, he and the rest of the leadership flew to three cities around the country to meet with the newcomers, something no speaker had ever done before. Tom Nides says that the intent was “to hear their concerns,” but undoubtedly a second goal was to deflect the formation of a powerful reform bloc like the “Watergate babies” of 1974.

Foley’s final stroke was his January 8 decision not to reappoint Dave McCurdy to chair the Intelligence Committee. Publicly, Foley said that it was time to give someone else a chance. News organizations like the New York Times and the New Republic wrongly reported that the move was in response to McCurdy’s post-election lobbying to be defense secretary. But on the Hill, Foley’s move was rightly seen as a humiliating rebuke to McCurdy for his challenge, and as a warning to other restless Democrats.

“If McCurdy had come to him and said, ‘I was interested, I looked at the speaker’s job, but I’m willing to support you,’ things might have been different,” says one member. But McCurdy didn’t. In any case, “for people who were wondering whether or not the speaker was willing to use his power in this way, it certainly sent a message.” Not coincidentally, none of Foley’s most prominent critics during the 102d Congress–Charlie Stenholm, Timothy Penny, George Miller, John Bryant, and others–would risk offending Foley by talking now.

Beyond repeating his public rationale, Foley won’t discuss his decision to demote McCurdy. But in a different conversation, he opened up in a way that helps to explain it. “I am not a vindictive personality,” he says. “Having difficult relations, problems with people, bothers me–even when I don’t think that I’m the offending party. However, in politics, like life, if you get the reputation of being unable to respond, unwilling to respond, to what might be perceived as a direct challenge, then there is the risk that people will say, ‘Look at him, you can get away with anything.’

“I’m a peacemaker, not a streetfighter. [But] push me once and the next thing we’re fighting in the street. People make that mistake. They think that I won’t do it–that because I don’t like it, I won’t do it.”


By fully exploiting the power of his position, Tom Foley has consolidated his power. Now the question is, what will he do with it?

First and foremost, Foley wants to push Clinton’s economic and health-care plans. “Tom Foley really has no agenda other than the president’s agenda,” says Tom Nides. So far, Foley has successfully steered Clinton’s economic plan through the House. A master of parliamentary skills, Foley has used House rules to block Republican amendments on important legislation, while corraling Democratic votes. “We’re getting 90 percent of Democrats on any vote that we care about,” says Howard Paster, the White House liaison to Congress. According to Paster, Foley deserves the credit.

Yet early in the new administration, there were also signs that Foley’s laid-back attitude toward reform and insider’s devotion to Congress have not changed. In December, for example, George Bush contacted Foley to ask if he would protest a decision to pardon Caspar Weinberger and other Iran-contra defendants. Foley assured him he wouldn’t, and Bush went ahead with the pardon.

A more important example of Foley’s contentment with the status quo involves campaign finance. The biggest reformers want limits on campaign spending, strict limits on PAC contributions, and, to make up the balance, public financing of congressional campaigns. Although public financing might cost more in the short term, it would save billions in the tax breaks and pork-barrel appropriations that PAC contributions buy.

In the past, Foley has said he supports public financing. But in March, Foley announced that he “despaired” of getting public financing passed–a clear signal to his colleagues that he wouldn’t press the idea. He claimed that the public viewed public financing as a taxpayers’ giveaway. Yet Foley also knows that many House Democrats– the people to whom he owes his job–don’t want to give up the fund- raising advantages of incumbency. According to one House staffer, “The leadership really sees it as their role to protect the marginal members who could lose due to lower spending limits or a lower PAC [contribution] limit.” For Foley, the question is more personal. These people helped Foley keep his job. He doesn’t want to return the favor by pushing a reform that could cost them theirs.

Another case involves the Democratic freshmen, who took their oaths of office and boldly announced the formation of a task force to propose new reforms. “[Foley] has controlled the agenda there, rather than the other way around,” says a member of the House leadership. Foley issued skeptical public statements, met privately with individual freshmen, and sat in on some of their meetings. The freshmen rightly interpreted this as gloved but firm pressure.

The result? In March the freshmen released a tepid set of proposals, which included “voluntary spending limits” for political campaigns and “efforts to restrict retiring members’ ability to purchase district office furniture.” Says a staffer to one committee chairman, “The whole freshmen class came in with this mandate for change.” Now, he says, they are “cooperating” with the leadership, “molded into the way of the House.” The freshmen entered like lions; Foley turned them into lambs (see Pizzo, page 34).

The truth is that the 103d Congress represents the best opportunity in decades to clean up the House of Representatives. But under Tom Foley’s compromising leadership, that opportunity, that brief window of time in which real change could occur, is rapidly slipping away.

“I have great respect for this institution, and I would like to be remembered as somebody who reflected that respect and maybe expanded it,” Foley says. “It’s a little painful to say that, because so much of what has brought the institution under public attack in recent months happened when I was speaker. But I hope that, by the time I leave the speakership, that condition will have changed.”

The sentiment is genuine. But listening to Foley, you can’t help but get the feeling that nothing is going to change.

Richard Blow is a free-lance writer living in Washington, D.C. His articles have appeared in the Washington Post, the New York Times, the New Republic, and Rolling Stone


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