Paul Jacob

The other Washington.

As the 1994 election approached, congressional Republicans were embracing term limits in their Contract with America, and so was a young lawyer from Spokane named George Nethercutt, who was challenging Speaker Foley. Nethercutt not only claimed to favor term limits, he pledged to serve just three terms, as Washingtonians had voted, and he promised never to sue his constituents as Foley was doing. The term limits movement spent more than $300,000 on TV and radio spots and mailings reminding eastern Washington voters of all that Foley had done to deny their vote and block his own term limits.

On that election night some nineteen years ago, Tom Foley’s opposition to term limits made him the first Speaker of the House since the Civil War to be defeated for re-election. Historically, sitting speakers have been rarely defeated. In modern times, with the power of incumbency, it had never happened.

Galusha Aaron Grow, a Radical Republican from Pennsylvania, was the last speaker so turned out back in 1862, after a dozen years in Congress . . . but just a single term as House speaker. Ironically, Grow had replaced William Pennington, a New Jersey Republican who was defeated for re-election in 1860 after serving his only congressional term — the last portion of which he was installed as a compromise speaker.

Not much has been made of George Nethercutt’s amazing victory in 1994, because Nethercutt broke his word, refusing to step down from office after three terms.

Much is made of Foley’s historic defeat, however. In recognizing the passing of the former Speaker, Reuters reported that, “a conservative mood shift made him one of the few speakers ever defeated for re-election.” Time noted that, “Foley wasn’t the victim of scandal or charges of gross incompetence.”

Well, yes and no. Not “scandal” in a criminal way — or the X-rated sense that politicians are so fond of providing to a mass audience these days. But for the voters of eastern Washington, suing to overturn their vote for term limits was politically scandalous, indeed. (Personally, I like their standards.) As the Seattle Times explained in remembering the man, “Few things unleashed the ire of Mr. Foley’s constituents as much as his dogged campaign against term limits.”

Though he was wrong about term limits and I was right, let me say after 20 more years of experience that I like Mr. Foley’s style. He seemed a happy warrior, never inspiring personal animosity. Hey, in politics, that’s saying something.

Memories of Speaker Foley spark in me a remembrance of what the people of eastern Washington did at the polls some twenty years ago. Those voters certainly did not want to let a nice man like Tom Foley go. But neither could they countenance his lawsuit. They were not swayed in the least by the lavish gifts a Speaker of the House could bestow on their area, and instead, they voted, heroically, to fix the broken Congress.

May Speaker Foley rest in peace. And may none of the rest of us rest until we again have a Congress that truly represents the American people.     [references]


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.