Paul Jacob

We never met. Even if we had met, we wouldn’t have been friends: we wouldn’t have traded holiday cards, certainly wouldn’t have shared a drink or played tennis or joked together at a party. (I wonder if he played tennis.)

Former Speaker of the House Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) passed away on Friday at age 84. We were political antagonists, twenty years ago, when the issue of term limits placed us at loggerheads.

It wasn’t personal. Foley was just another congressperson to me, though his 30 years in Congress and his leadership position obviously made him more answerable for the then-high levels of congressional arrogance and dysfunction — which seem so much less toxic now, in retrospect, because of the passage of time and the fresh memories of current congressional malevolence.

In those days, I served as executive director of U.S. Term Limits, and was campaigning to place limits on the number of terms any person could spend in Congress. The idea was to disable politicians from holding power for decades without ever having to return home to live under the laws they had passed.

Back then Congress exempted itself from many of the laws it enacted. That practice has noticeably changed, as sometimes now the president must also be called in to exempt Congress from the laws it passes, as with Obamacare.

In 1992, working with citizen leaders in 14 states, we petitioned to place term limits initiatives on the ballot — the most states to ever vote on a single issue in the same election cycle. Voters in all 14 states approved term limits, including in Speaker Foley’s home state of Washington.

Washington’s Initiative 573 lost narrowly in Foley’s congressional district, but won statewide. The voters had spoken and, though the Speaker was returned to office for the next term, he was also now limited to no more than three additional terms, six years.

So, Speaker of the House Tom Foley sued in federal court to overturn the vote cast by the people of his state imposing term limits on him. It was neither the first nor the last time a politician sued his voters, but few campaign managers recommend it. Being a plaintiff in the lawsuit against term limits proved Speaker Foley’s undoing, a misstep from which he could not recover.

Foley and his spokespeople often cited the fact that folks in his district had sided against the term limits measure. True, but even among that very slim majority, his lawsuit to overturn the people’s vote felt like a slap in the face and was seen as an unmistakable sign Mr. Foley had “gone Washington.”

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.