Foley’s death recalls era when government functioned

Tom Foley, former speaker of the House of Representatives, died Friday at age 84.

His passing recalls another era, when elected officials in Washington collaborated across party lines enough to pass Civil Rights legislation and negotiate on a budget. His passing also reminds us that we get the government we elect. When we, as voters, decide we want a government that functions, we will elect people who will give us one.

Foley, a Democrat from Washington state, had been booted from Congress — and his post as speaker — in 1994 in a wave of anti-incumbent fever. He subsequently served as ambassador to Japan and as North American chairman of the Trilateral Commission.

His wife, Heather, wrote that her husband “was very much a believer that the perfect should not get in the way of the achievable” and that “half of something was better than none.” This seems almost shocking today when lines are drawn in the sand to the point that federal employees can be furloughed for weeks and the nation brought to the brink of not paying its debts before elected officials consider compromise.

“There was always another day and another Congress to move forward and get the other half done,” Mrs. Foley wrote. There still is that coming day. The founders of the Republic realized this truth and set up a system that moves forward through negotiation and incremental change. The American political process still works that way, when it works.

Pres. George H. W. Bush said of Foley, “We didn’t agree on every issue, but on key issues we managed to put the good of the country ahead of politics.”

Foley was remembered for moving forward a House resolution that authorized Bush to send American forces to the Middle East after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. Despite his own personal feelings and objections from many in his party, “he granted our request for a vote because it was the right thing to do,” recalled Bob Michel, an Illinois Republican who was House minority leader at the time. “He was that kind of leader.”

Current Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, issued a statement Friday, saying Foley “endeared himself (to) ... colleagues on both sides of the aisle.”

The Foley Institute for Public Policy at Washington State University is named for the former speaker. Cornell Clayton, the institute’s director, said Foley’s growing up in the Depression and World War II enabled him to work in a bipartisan manner.

The politicos of Foley’s generation “saw us all on the same team,” Clayton said. Shouldn’t we still be?

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