Former Speaker Tom Foley Dies

President Bill Clinton (L) speaks to U.S. Speaker of the House Tom Foley (R) after a press conference 04 August 1993 on Capitol Hill.
National Journal
Billy House
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Billy House
Oct. 18, 2013, 9:22 a.m.

Thomas Fo­ley, the House speak­er from 1989 to 1994 and later an am­bas­sad­or to Ja­pan, died Fri­day morn­ing of stroke-re­lated com­plic­a­tions. He was 84.

“With his passing, the House loses one of its most de­voted ser­vants and the coun­try loses a great states­man,” House Speak­er John Boehner said in a state­ment.

The Demo­crat from Spokane, Wash., was first elec­ted to the House in 1964 and rose through the ranks over 15 terms to be­come chair­man of the House Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee, ma­jor­ity whip, and ma­jor­ity lead­er. In June 1989, he be­came the na­tion’s 57th House speak­er.

But, in a rare event, he was de­feated for elec­tion to his House seat in 1994 in a land­slide that capped that year’s “Re­pub­lic­an Re­volu­tion,” which led to the in­stall­a­tion of Newt Gin­grich as speak­er. Fo­ley, who lost his seat to Re­pub­lic­an George Ner­th­er­cutt, was the first speak­er of the House since the Civil War to lose a bid for reelec­tion.

In his cam­paign against Fo­ley, Neth­er­cutt cap­it­al­ized on a pop­u­list theme, prom­ising to serve no more than three terms in the House, a prom­ise he would ul­ti­mately break. But the theme was a pop­u­lar one in 1994. The mes­sage took hold in part be­cause it came just two years after Wash­ing­ton voters ap­proved a bal­lot meas­ure lim­it­ing terms for state of­fi­cials ““ in­clud­ing fed­er­al rep­res­ent­at­ives. Fo­ley, al­lied with the League of Wo­men Voters and oth­ers, filed a chal­lenge and won, but Neth­er­cutt was able to play up Fo­ley’s role in over­turn­ing that meas­ure.

House Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi, her­self a former speak­er who vis­ited Fo­ley at a hos­pice this week, called him “a quint­es­sen­tial cham­pi­on of the com­mon good.”

“In his years lead­ing the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives, Speak­er Fo­ley’s un­rivaled abil­ity to build con­sensus and find com­mon ground earned him genu­ine re­spect on both sides of the aisle. The year I took of­fice, he se­cured a much-needed budget com­prom­ise that re­stored pub­lic faith in our fin­an­cial se­cur­ity and con­fid­ence in Con­gress,” she re­called.

House Re­pub­lic­an Con­fer­ence Chair Cathy Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers, a Re­pub­lic­an from Wash­ing­ton state, said Fo­ley will be re­membered “as one of our state’s gi­ants.”

“East­ern Wash­ing­ton ag­ri­cul­ture and wheat farm­ers still be­ne­fit today from his lead­er­ship as Chair­man of the House Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee and House Speak­er,” she said in a state­ment.

Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden said of Fo­ley in a state­ment, “It was an hon­or to work with him dur­ing the budget sum­mits of the 1980s that did so much to se­cure our na­tion’s fu­ture, and when he served over­seas as our na­tion’s Am­bas­sad­or to Ja­pan.”

After leav­ing Con­gress, Fo­ley worked at the law firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld from 1995 through 1997, a peri­od in which he was Pres­id­ent Clin­ton’s chair­man of the For­eign In­tel­li­gence Ad­vis­ory Board. Clin­ton nom­in­ated him to be the 25th am­bas­sad­or to Ja­pan in 1997, a po­s­i­tion in which he served un­til March 2001.

After leav­ing that post, Fo­ley chaired the Mans­field Found­a­tion un­til 2008 and was act­ive on a num­ber of private and pub­lic boards of dir­ect­ors. Those in­cluded the Ja­pan-Amer­ica So­ci­ety of Wash­ing­ton, the Cen­ter for Stra­tegic and In­ter­na­tion­al Stud­ies, and the Cen­ter for Na­tion­al Policy.

He is sur­vived by his wife, Heath­er, and oth­er fam­ily mem­bers.

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