Sadanand Mailliard: They have questions for you, and we’re also open to anything you’ve got to say.
Tom Foley: Well I’ll just say something briefly here, and then we’ll go in to the question and you can ask me what you’d like to talk about.
First of all, pleasure to welcome you all to Washington again; it’s always a special pleasure to have you here at Akin Gump and to have an opportunity to talk a little about the issues of the day during your Washington visit. I think that since you came last year, that things have gotten, in many cases, worse. Not too many things have gotten better in the city. And one of the things that has, I think tended over the years – over recent years – to be a source of great disappointment to many of us who have been in the city and worked in the city for a long time is the tensions that exist now between the two parties. And I think in the Congress in particular; in the House of Representatives, which I know very well having served there for 30 years, the two parties are really more estranged, more separated and more conflicted between themselves than I have seen it frankly in the time that I have lived in Washington, DC, and that’s a very long time.
I think that one of the reasons this is happening is that people don’t come to Washington and stay here very much. The new congressional model is for many people to live at home – wherever that is – and fly in to Washington on Tuesday morning, vote on votes on Wednesday and maybe Thursday morning, and leave. In previous decades, going back to the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s, even into the ’90s, many people moved here. They had two houses; they had a home in their district and they had some place, an apartment or a house here in Washington. Their children at least were partially raised here in Washington, and that is a link of course between families, because a Republican and a Democratic member might find that both of their daughters were on the swim team, either competing against each other or on the same team. Or somebody was involved in soccer or gymnastics. A lot of opportunities existed for families to get to know each other. Today, because of these short visits in and out of the city, many of the members don’t have any particular idea about the people on the other side of the aisle except that they know they are political adversaries, and that creates a very difficult and tough attitude.
Also, the states have redistricted. The legislatures of the states are in charge of redistricting. They have redistricted in recent decades, particularly in the last decade, to make the districts more secure for incumbents in both parties. And as a consequence, there are more red and more blue districts than there were what we call purple districts. There were more districts that are very safe for Democrats or very safe for Republicans, and when I first got elected there was something – that was 1964, by the way – there was something like 82 new Democrats elected to the Congress. I think in the last election, six seats changed hands. And most political analysts now in a normal – this may not be a normal year – but in a normal congressional election don’t expect 10% of the House of Representatives to be seriously engaged in real contest where somebody doesn’t have almost a lock on the seat to begin with. That creates problems, it makes it difficult for members to talk together across the aisle so to speak, and it’s a condition of our politics that also leads to sometimes very bitter feelings.
Recently, two members of Congress found themselves kind of bumping in to each other rushing for the door on a Thursday to go home, and they were both members of the gym. And they laughed about it when they met the next time in the gym. And over a series of days in the House gym, they found themselves able to talk about issues. And then they’d shower and go up to the floor and join the tribes, the opposing tribes; one’s a Democrat and one’s a Republican. So the Aspen institute gave them an award. Representative Israel is a Democrat, Representative Johnson is a Republican, and they are the organizers of something called “The Center Asile,” which Bob Michael – who was a Republican leader when I was speaker – and I have sort of tried to be sponsors of, to bring members of both parties together so that they can talk about issues that are important to the country.
And speaking of issues that are important to the country, I now will yield for questions about what you think is important for the country.
Daniel Nanas: At an interview in 2002, you told the Mount Madonna group that year, you shared some advice that you had been given by a senior member of your party. You said he said, “You know, I’ve got to warn you about one of the great dangers that can occur to a new member coming in to the Congress. The danger is thinking for yourselves. Cooperate with the party structure.” And you mentioned that you didn’t like the advice 25 years ago – or 25 years later as Speaker, pardon, you saw its wisdom. I’m curious that now, out of office, what new perspective you have.
Tom Foley: Well first of all, that’s a pretty accurate description of what I thought would be understood as a joke. It was true, it happened! And the member who said that – Mister Kirwan of Illinois, or… Ohio! Sorry, of Ohio – did make me very angry as a new member when he said don’t think for yourself. It was was kind of a long list of people you should follow. He said, “trust the subcommittee chairman, the committee chairman, the chairman of the Democratic caucus, the Democratic whip, the majority leader, and especially trust, support and follow the speaker.” And then I told you how upset I was with that, and I was! I thought, “I didn’t come here to take orders from the party leadership.” And then 25 years later when I was taking the oath of office as Speaker – this was the joke part – the wise words of Mister Kirwan came back to me over a generation of time when he said “trust, follow and support the Speaker,” I thought, “how right he was!” But I think I also said that fortunately, most members of Congress don’t follow blindly the political leadership of their party, and they make their own judgments.
However, having said that, what is the difference in the last time we spoke, things have gotten much more a matter of party line votes. There are more party line votes today in this recent Congress than there have been for a very, very long time. I don’t know the statistics offhand, but there are considerably more straight party or almost straight party line votes, and I think that tends to be unfortunate. Now once in a while, things will bring members together when there perceive a common problem or a common issue. Recently, gasoline prices had everybody on edge, and both parties were offering up what I think was mostly silly answers and making the problem probably worse than better, but it’s an example of what happens when suddenly there’s a political shockwave, and high prices of the gasoline were a political shockwave. The chairman of the committee in the House, the Energy Committee, called for investigations of high gasoline prices, the Democrats have supported that demand and tried to one-up it by having press conferences in front of the price billboards out in front of stations and so forth.
Recently, there was a raiding of a member’s office by the FBI, and there was a sense of outrage on the hill, as we say, among both parties, which has no sympathy I don’t think with the public. There is a sort of little-known issue of the Speech and Debate clause in of the fact that the Congress, the House and the Senate are separate, equal branches of government. That the fundamental of our Constitutional law. Article One is… Anybody want reflect on what Article One is? …Of the Constitution? …The legislative branch! Not the presidency, the legislative branch. Article Two is the presidential/executive branch, and Article Three is?
Tom Foley: You got that. Good for you.
Sadanand Mailliard: Just takes them a while to wake up.
Tom Foley: And as I say, the public reaction to this FBI raid of a member’s office is entirely supportive. I think if you took a poll, you’d probably get 90+ people in the country saying, “Right on, those members of Congress haven’t got any more right than anybody else not to have their offices raided.” Which is probably true, Constitutionally, but at the same time, it sent a shockwave of concern. Not because members of Congress are worried so much about their own offices being suddenly raided by the FBI, but because traditionally, there was a worry that the executive branch could try to intimidate members of congress, to force some kind of compliance with the executive party’s or the executive branch’s desires. President Nixon had a famous enemy’s list, and there was evidence that the Internal Revenue Service was being pressured – I think they resisted – but they were being pressured to investigate people on the list; not only members of Congress, but others. So there is that kind of a concern today that comes up even when the Congress is probably reacting in a way that isn’t particularly supported by the public.
There are cases where suddenly the institutional interest of the Congress or the common political pressure of the country brings them together, but otherwise, they tend to often take very different positions on issues, and I think that’s unfortunate, because the House is a place where you have to be able to pass the President’s program or the legislative program, and so I don’t object to having a strong legislative leadership there, but from time to time, it’s also useful to have people who are bridgers, who bring moderate Republicans into the equation, or conservative Democrats into the occasion. And there are fewer and fewer moderate Republicans – there are some – and fewer and fewer conservative Democrats, there are a few. The House is much more liberal, progressive than it used to be as a whole, and the Republican party is much more conservative than it used to be as a whole.
Long answer to your question. I didn’t want you to misunderstand, but if I put up an asterisk and say, “this is a joke,” then you’ll understand maybe a little more clearly, I didn’t do that one very well.
Sadanand Mailliard: I think we got the humor, but my sense was that your perspective shifts nonetheless as you move through.
Tom Foley: Oh sure. That’s true, that’s true. As long as you understood it was for emphasis. Sure, when you’re Speaker, frankly, you’re charged – that’s a great responsibility, the Speakership – with setting the agenda of the House, and moving forward to enact legislation that the majority party wishes to enact. The problem today – I think – in the House, is that the leadership on the Republican side has been very muscular in moving the program through the House. And with a stronger unity among Republicans, it has produced the reaction on the other side of strong resistance from the Democrats. And I say without that kind of intermediating role of moderates in both parties, the clashes can become pretty strong. And then when people don’t know each other and don’t have an opportunity to sit down together and talk it out, then it can also be accompanied by a lot of anger. And to some extent, that’s what we’re seeing today, I think.
Alyssa DeBenedetti: You once told a story about talking to the new members of Congress and advising them to try not to have a perfect voting record, to take time from family matters and to travel to develop relationships. The press picked it up and distorted it, telling them to miss votes and take as many junkets as possible.
Tom Foley: They said that that’s what I said.
Alyssa DeBenedetti: Yes. What was your general relationship with the press, and do you think they are fulfilling their proper role in informing the public today?
Tom Foley: The answer to both questions quickly is I had a good relationship with the press, and I think that they are fulfilling their role. Like every profession, when we’re taking in generalities about the press, there are always exceptions. I think for my experience, reporters could be trusted to follow the guidelines of your interview. Sometimes, for example, members will say, or people in Washington will say, “I want to say something on background,” which means: “this is for your information, I don’t want to be quoted and I don’t want to have this statement attributed to me.” Deep background is just an exaggeration of that, and “off the record” means it’s off the record; “I’m telling you, but you can’t quote me or attribute it to me, or whatever.”
For example, obviously, if someone said, “a former Speaker of the House who comes from the West.” Well, I’m the only Speaker of the House that has ever come from the West, so that’s a self-identifying thing. Or if you say, “a former major league baseball player who is a member of Congress.” There aren’t too many former major league baseball players who are members of Congress, so that kind of identified people. But generally, the press obeyed those rules. The followed them once you had an understanding. You have to have a clear understanding. One of the reasons they did, because the press wants access; they want to be able to come back to you and talk to you again. And if you say, “Hey, last time we spoke I said off the record and you printed it. Sorry, see ya. You’re not going to get another interview from me.” And so, conscious of that, there is an understanding.
The latest kind of question about press relations is whether they have a right to use anonymous sources, to reprint information that comes to them that’s technically classified, those are other questions. But do I think the press does its job? Yeah, I do. And the one concern I have is not so much about the press, it’s about people who read or look at or listen to the press. If I had to choose between two newspapers – one that I agreed with very much and the other one with which I disagreed very much – and I could only read one, I would read the one I disagreed with very much, because I’m pretty sure, knowing my own views, what newspaper A is going to say, but I want to hear the other side.
Condoleezza Rice recently spoke at Boston University and suggested to the students who were graduating that it’s okay to hold a strong opinion and to hold it passionately, but also, she suggested, “go out and find somebody that disagrees with you, and disagrees with you strongly,” and listen to them or discuss with them, I’ve forgotten the exact quote, but she got a strong round of applause. I’m glad she did, because today, one of the problems we have is that many people – not just younger people and graduates, but people of almost every age – tend to like to read and like to see and like to hear what they agree with. And they don’t like to read or see or listen to what they don’t agree with.
They had a reprise of this problem on one of the networks where an insurance agent from the South would only read Human Events and would only listen to Fox. And then they had an interview with a New York University law professor who relied principally on the BBC, because he thought all American networks were too conservative, and he wanted to get most of his information on the Middle East from Al-Jazeera. Now, my concern is that when people limit what they hear and what they read to just those sources that they agree with, that’s bad. And as I say, I think what we need is a healthy debate in the country, and we need to listen to and to hear a variety of voices and opinions. And that’s why I think it’s unfortunate that a lot of people don’t agree with that position.
I’ll give you an example if you want of a case where I did like… This was not a mainstream press source but sort of a smaller newspaper, and the reporter called me up and asked me some questions about the Agriculture Committee – I was then chairman of the Agriculture Committee – and he asked me about the farm bill. And I went on and on about feed grain prices and milk program and so forth. And he said, “by the way, you’re on the Ethics Committee, aren’t you?” And I said, “Yes, called formally the Standards of Official Conduct Committee.” He said, “What do you think about the ethics of a member who owns stock in a company and votes on questions that relate to the company’s interest?” And I said, “Well, you really can’t answer that question just in a generic way. You’d have to know how much of an interest he personally had, whether there was a parent conflict…”
He said, “Well, how do you find that out?” and I said, “Well, you have to look in to the matter if there’s a serious question, I suppose.”
“And do you think that an examination of members’ holdings is legitimate?” I said, “Sure! If we have to file a report, then it’s legitimate.”
“And do you think that if the inquiry or the report indicates the possibility of some wrongdoing that could be examined?” “Yes.”
“Do you think it should lead to ethical examination by the Ethics Committee?” And I said, “Again, you can’t answer that question outside a specific examination of the member and the circumstances.”
And he said, “Well, you don’t think that they ought to necessarily be prosecuted.” I said, “Of course. Well, depends actually on the circumstances!” I shouldn’t, of course, have been going down this road at all, because the flags were starting to come up that this was going somewhere else. I didn’t realize quite how bad it was.
The next thing I knew, there was a press release from this particular source that, “Congressman X of such-and-such state who sits on the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee and holds stock in X state power company should have his records examined by the Ethics Committee, according to Congressman Thomas S. Foley. Foley said that it would be necessary to determine whether unethical or criminal behavior had been committed by Congressman X, only after a sufficient and fair examination of his circumstances in the stock ownership is fully examined. Foley would not go so far as to say that member X had committed a crime…” Member X is not member X, member X is a specific name.
So I spent all afternoon calling all the editorial boards and newspapers and television, as many as I could, saying exactly what happened in this interview. And it was another example of just a blatant misrepresentation of everything that I said, turning it in to a specific charge against a member, which was played all over his state. That’s an example I said, “never again will I see, talk to or be interviewed by this source, forever.”
Alyssa DeBenedetti: Did they ever try and interview you again or call you again?
Tom Foley: (laughs) No! They didn’t get by my office secretary, if they did. But that happens rarely. And particularly in Washington, because this is a place where politics and government is the daily bread of press coverage and it has to be accurate as much as can be done, and it has to be certainly based on real interviews.
Alyssa DeBenedetti: Do you think that more recently, the press has been misrepresenting political figures or just important figures in general? From maybe earlier days like the ’40s or the ’50s, do you think that the press has changed and is misrepresenting more now?
Tom Foley: I think its different now. I think private lives are much, much more “fair game” with the press than they were in an earlier period in our history. When I first became a member back in 1965 and when I was a staff member from 1961 to 1964, it would be unthinkable that major newspapers would print anything about a public official that wasn’t his or her daily work. There were members – always have been – who have had one or the other problems. Some members in the past, fewer now probably, but some members in the past drank too much. And other members had, obviously, family problems and so forth. But a New York Times reporter told me that if he had reported on any of this in the ’60s to the New York Times, he would be admonished by his editors, “Look up at the masthead of our paper. See what it says. All the news that’s fit to print. This dispatch you have sent is not fit to print!” And he said, “I’d probably lose my job, or I’d be on probation that never again I’d write a story like this.” And what would have been said by mainline newspapers like The Wall Street Journal and The Post and The Christian Science Monitor and almost any newspaper is that, “That’s the domain of the checkout at the supermarket kind of magazines. That’s not our business.”
What’s changed it? 24-hour news cycle? Blogs? All of the sudden, you’ve got people blogging about something and that’s picked up as a story by somebody, and as soon as it’s picked up by somebody, everybody else is on the story pretty fast. So it’s a different environment today, no question about it. And I don’t think that much can be changed except that it also makes, opens up a new opportunity for scandal mongering and use of it as a political weapon on whatever side anybody wants to try to figure out.
Americans are interesting people. We are, on the one hand, seen by other cultures as being very libertarian if not libertine, on the other hand, I was told by David Gergen that a visiting minister at the Kennedy school said that every weekend – I can’t vouch for this statistic, but this was David Gergen’s quote – said, “Every weekend, something like 120 million Americans attend religious services in cathedral, synagogue, temple, shrine, mosque, and that is more people than watch all the official professional sports activities in The United States in a year.” So we are a country that goes to church, that is a country of believing people. And on the other hand, we are seen sometimes from the outside as a very recklessly… Libertine is I guess the word that would be assigned to us. That we have open discussions, that we have all kinds of things on pornography on the internet is not only easy to find but almost hard to avoid, so we’re a country of contrasts. And we have from our beginning this, on the one hand, leave me alone, stay out of my life, I should be able to do what I want, and on the other hand, the exposure of people who are in public life to any kind of rumor or scandal that’s available at the moment.
There’s of course a legal difference between us and other countries. There’s a case called Sullivan vs. New York Times, which is a famous Constitutional case in this country, which says in effect that if you’re a public figure and you try sue somebody for slander or libel, that you have to prove that it was malicious and that there was no foundation for it at all, and it’s a very hard threshold to reach. In England, if you say anything like that, you get sued. And in the British courts, if you lose the case, you wind up paying for the other side’s attorney’s fees. And that can be horrendously expensive, and every once in a while, British papers get caught up in those suits. But as a practical matter, public officials – not just members of congress, but anybody who is a public celebrity in effect, but particularly officials – are almost powerless to bring legal action that’s effective to protect their name or reputation.
Seychelle deVries: You spoke a little bit about earlier about how there was a time when there were more easily friendships across the aisle, and I wondered if there was someone maybe in your past that you disagreed strongly with their policy, but you had a close relationship with.
Tom Foley: Dick Cheney.
Dick was a whip of the house, and before that he was a member from Wyoming. And we disagreed on a lot of things, but I considered him a friend, still do. I think it was just before the 2004 election – I didn’t see this program, I was somewhere traveling or whatever – but I think in one of the debates, he was asked if he had any Democratic friends, and then somebody said, thinking a while, he named me; and so when I went to the Democratic Convention in Boston, I walked in the convention hall and Chris Dodd, who is an old friend, said, “What’s going on!?” All over me about this comment that Dick Cheney was my friend. But it was possible to have friends who were in the other party, and not only in the other party, but more conservative or more liberal on one side or the other on many issues. That’s missing today, I think. Of course, Bob Michael, who is my very good friend, when he was the Republican Leader and I was the Speaker – when I was the Majority Leader and he was the Republican Leader. And also people like Joe LaFore, who was a member of the House.
I don’t know if you remember it, probably didn’t see it because it was a little while ago, when President Ford took the oath of office after the resignation of president Nixon, he asked the country to pray for him. I was in the Democratic cloakroom. The cloakrooms are kind of sacred territory. The Republicans have a cloakroom, the Democrats have a cloakroom. What’s in the cloakroom? Chairs, television set, a little lunch counter, telephone booths, so you can take a call, you can have a sandwich, you can sit down and watch what’s happening a few feet away on television. And member in the old days – I don’t know if they allow that anymore – but members in the old days could also have a cigarette or a cigar or something; you can’t smoke on the House floor, and I don’t think you can smoke in the cloakrooms; I haven’t been up there in a long time.
But anyway, I was in the cloakroom along with a whole bunch of Democrats – place was packed – watching the television set as the president took the oath of office. And when he asked the country to pray for him, there was dead silence in the room, there was absolute dead silence. And then a voice – I get a little choked up when I think about this – a voice from the back of the cloakroom said, “We will, Jerry. God bless you. God bless you.”
I have a hard time imagining the circumstances that could be played that way today, because you don’t have those close associations across the aisle, you don’t have the personal experience of friendship and association, and that makes a lot of things tougher. It makes the parties more combative, it makes understanding of the other person’s argument more difficult, and it creates a kind of not only bitterness, but anger that starts to assign to the other party, the other side of the aisle the worst possible motives, and eliminate for your own possible consideration that they might actually believe this or be committed to this, or to respect this or that principle. That’s too bad.
Jonji Barber: What could the government do today to change this?
Tom Foley: I don’t think that – I think that – well, that’s a hard question because it isn’t easy to just turn around. It’s what we call a culture that’s developed, and the old culture has kind of been replaced by the new one. But I mentioned Representative Israel and Representative Johnson. That’s a start, where members themselves decide, “Hey, this is not a good environment for us to have,” and they bring themselves together, Republicans and Democrats. These are junior members – they’re not senior members, they’re junior members – it’s a really healthy thing, and I applaud it, because not only is this important for personal relations, but you get better legislation. You get better results. Because if you’re sort of A-team and B-team, this tribe and that tribe, then there’s a tendency for people to say, “Well, this isn’t a bad amendment that the Republicans are offering or that the Democrats are offering, but I can’t vote for it because party doesn’t like it, or I’ll look like I’m failing the team.” And what you’re getting is that kind of… You’ve got a big “D” on your forehead or you’ve got a big “R” on your forehead and you suit up and go out and play the game for the team. I hope that can change.
Now it went to far maybe in the old days, where there were people that were so independent that even non-procedural issues where you really do expect a certain amount of support, they would be independent. And sometimes the independence was more catering to their constituency.
I don’t know if you saw it, but again, I thought it was a very interesting interview. Senator McCain was on television this Sunday – I think it was this Sunday. The reason I say that is my wife records programs. I travel a lot and she puts them on a recording, and so I watch Meet the Press and a lot of the Sunday morning programs from a couple of weeks back; I’ve been gone for almost a month.
Anyway, he was being interviewed on Fox Morning News by Chris Wallace, and the question was asked about his position on same sex marriage, on gay marriage. Would he support the Constitutional amendment barring same sex marriage? Defining marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman. He said, “I’m not going to vote for the federal Constitutional amendment, but I support the Arizona law.” And Chris Wallace said, “Isn’t that threading the needle, i.e. isn’t that kind of trying to be on both sides of the issue?” And Senator McCain said, “No, this is where I stand. I think that this issue of what is a marriage is a state matter and shouldn’t be usurped by the federal government and federal Constitution.” And he said, “If federal judges go beyond what I think they’re entitled to do and interfere with the state law, then I’ll consider something like this, but not now. And that’s why my position,”
So Chris Wallace pursued it a little bit. And he [McCain] said, “You know, I’ve found in my career in Congress” – this isn’t an exact quote, but – “when I do the things that I think are right, then I’m never unhappy about that. If I do the things that I think are rationalizations or a little bit for political advantage, then I’m not happy with it later on.” And so Chris Wallace said, “Okay, give me an example of something that you did that you didn’t feel very comfortable about.”
I thought this was stunning, because political people don’t usually get this frank, he said, “In the primary in South Carolina in 2000, I said that the Confederate battle flag flying over the state capitol was just a matter of state decision, and I shouldn’t comment on it and it shouldn’t be an issue.” He said, “That was cowardly. That was a cowardly answer,” and he said, “I regret it.”
So I just sent him a note the other day saying, “This is why a lot of people, including me, admire you.” Now, I’m a Democrat and I’m not likely to vote for anybody but a Democrat, I’m almost like a “Yellow Dog” – as they say – Democrat, but I admire people who can be straightforward and honest even when it’s against the political rules, and where candor and honesty comes out in a way that is unusually frank. And that’s why I really applauded that kind of answer, but it’s tough to do. And I have had the same kind of experience. When I served in Congress, I never was unhappy with decisions that I made even though they were politically damaging, if I thought they were right. In fact, at one time, I got so much on the edge of the cliff that I was a little unhappy unless I took a position that I thought was dangerous. Once in a while, just to test the courage, I would lean a few points over on the edge of the precipice, and finally of course, I fell off, which was in 1994. But if I did something that I didn’t think was really totally honest, then I regretted it later on.
…You’re going to ask, “Give us an example.”
Sadanand Mailliard: We actually have that question here…
Tom Foley: I voted against an open housing law in 1967 or something like that, which I rationalized was a little too soon to get public acceptance, and later on, I thought that was a wrong vote. But when you vote, even if the consequence is bad, and you think “Yeah,” that’s the way you felt, I think that’s very important. I’ve always said “Every member of Congress ought to honestly be able to vote for him or herself.” They ought to be able to go in and say, “Looking at everything, I can say honestly I should be reelected.” And if you start to have doubts about that, quit. Quit, because it’s a tough life. A lot of people think members of Congress have a gilded life; it’s a very tough life having to balance family – particularly with people who have children and have school problems and all that kind of thing – with the political environment and raising money and you know, it’s not an easy life to live. And the one thing you want to be able to take away for when you retire is that by your own lights, whatever that was, you voted the way you thought your district and the country required.
And then that brings up another question: what about a conflict between your district and the country? That’s almost impossible, epistemologically, for members of Congress to believe that there’s a difference between the good of their district and the good of the country. That’s the fundamental rationalization I think of being a House member. Richard Boeling, who was a very distinguished House member from Missouri – one of the most intellectual I think and thoughtful, in my experience – said one time, called members of Congress, “Parochial.” And somebody jumped him on it. They said, “No, that’s what the place was intended to be! You’re supposed to represent a district! The Senate represents the states, and it’s the sum of all the parochial interests of all of the districts that’s supposed to be the wisdom of the House.”
Eddison Dudoit: I’d like to step backwards a little bit.
Tom Foley: Yeah?
Eddison Dudoit: We’ve interviewed lots of people in Congress during our stay here in DC – not so many Republicans, mostly Democrats and some Republicans.
Tom Foley: You should see a few more Republicans then!
Eddison Dudoit: Yeah, we should. They’ve all acknowledged that there’s this partisanship and how it’s increasing, it’s been increasing through the past. Everyone knows it’s there, but they don’t address it. Some people have their own separate little agendas, but it seems like it’s so obvious to everyone; it’s just the elephant in the room. Wouldn’t that make it easier to just put it on the table as something that they need to face?
Tom Foley: Everybody says it, everybody acknowledges it, you’re right. I mean, you can’t find members of Congress that won’t say at least privately that the situation is very bad, and people who have served a long time or have been around the city and Congress a long time will probably also say almost unanimously that it’s never been worse.
On the other hand, what to do about it? Well, the Congress used to have, from a few years back, “civility meetings!” They actually went off to Hershey, Pennsylvania or some place to a conference center, brought their families, and tried to be nice to each other! Both parties. And it got to be I guess too much work or something, because it kind of faded away.
Michael something-something I think: Did it work? Was it helpful?
Tom Foley: I was out of Congress by that time, so I didn’t really know or have the experience. It wasn’t necessary for most of the time that I was around to have a special conference on civility! But it was recognized. Members knew there was a problem, there were efforts to try and change it. The most recent one as I mentioned is “The Center Aisle.” But you just can’t wave a wand and say, “Alright, it’s going to be a new rule of the house that you have to think nicely about the other party and your own members.” So I hope it will gradually change. It has to be encouraged from the top, and then it has to be also accepted and worked the other way from the bottom as well. And some people misunderstand, they think, “Well, members of Congress, why do they have to be nice to each other?” George Will has said a couple of times that when President Bush 41 – President Bush’s father, the former president – talked about “Not bickering,” George Will wrote a column and said, “That’s what it’s all about! You’re supposed to bicker. That’s what the idea of the clash of ideas is all about.” That’s true. You don’t want a bland, one-size-fits-all, non-controversial, non-controversy Congress. But on the other hand, you can do it with civility, and the best thing is if you can do it with civility and respect. That gets you better legislation, because people then are open to new ideas or different ideas, or even ideas that they didn’t agree with. So I hope we can find a way out of this.
I’ll tell you one thing that is good, and I went back to I think a previous question, here. I did tell a group of members when I was still Speaker in the private meetings that both parties have, that they should have opportunities to travel if they haven’t taken terrible, awful, Viking oaths against it forever, because it brought them together with members. They could find legitimate ways to travel, that traveling together makes it very difficult to ignore and to shun other members. You’re on the same plane, you’re at the same table at dinner, whatever. And that is a value of travel all by itself. It’s not sufficient, but it’s one of the benefits of doing it.
The other thing I said is miss a vote, that’s true. Don’t miss an important vote; miss a vote that’s procedural, that won’t hurt your district or anybody. Just sit through it so that you will deny yourself an opportunity – if you ever even think about it – of having a 100% voting record. We had a member, Bill Natcher, who had something like 27,000-something consecutive votes, and when I was speaker, they told me that he was near death at Bethesda Naval Hospital, but he wanted to come in and vote on a bill that was coming up the next day. And they said, “It’ll probably kill him.” And I said, “It may kill him if he doesn’t vote!”
So anyway, the vision of Mister Natcher coming on the floor of the house on life support systems on a gantry, with attending nurses so he could raise his hand a little bit to vote, “aye,” I said, “Think about that. Think about having to chose between your sister’s wedding or your cousin’s funeral, or miss a vote. Miss it now, and then you can work as hard as you want to get as close as possible, but you can always take another miss without losing any huge, monstrous oath.”
John-Nuri Vissell: I was wondering, what would say are the characteristics that ultimately got you your position of Speaker of the House?
Tom Foley: Luck, first of all. I don’t mean that in a kind of light-hearted way, but I think frankly, whatever happens in most political careers is a good deal of circumstance; being the right place at the right time; having an opportunity. You have to seek opportunities or you have to seize opportunities, but I always think that there are two sorts of… An “A” or a “B” type, if you want, in public life. There’s the “A” type, who is a 17-year-old young man from Arkansas who meets John F. Kennedy in the rose garden of the White House and decides he’d like to be President of the United States. And a few years later, he’s the governor of the state. And a few years after that, he’s the President of the United States. That happens – that’s Bill Clinton, of course – that happens, but it’s very rare. The other type, the “B” type, is what almost all members of Congress are. They’re people who have had an opportunity to run for public office, they’ve taken that opportunity, the circumstances have been favorable and they have been elected.
I had to make a key decision when I was Chairman of the Agriculture Committee, of whether I would seek to be the Democratic Whip. The Democratic Whip is called Assistant Majority Leader in the Senate, but it is the person that’s responsible, principally, to organize the votes of the party to try to pass legislation or oppose legislation, whatever. And at the time, it was the kind of joint appointment – really, the appointment of the Speaker, and the Majority Leader’s views were kind of taken into consideration. So I asked Tip O’Neil if I could be Whip; I applied to be Whip. In order to do that, I had to give up the Agriculture Committee Chairmanship.
Now, a long time ago, a reporter for the New York Times spoke of the Chairman and the ranking members – that’s the other party, the shadow chairman in the other party – as “The Lords Proprietors of the Congress.” It’s a very important position to be the chairman of the Committee, and I use the word “chairman” – and I’ll tell you in a minute why – regardless of gender. The Chairman of the committee controls the agenda – he can’t be a tyrant, but has a very, very important role. Anyway, a lot of people thought I was crazy, particularly the other Committee chairs thought I was crazy to do that. As a result, however, I was able to become the majority leader, and then with the very unfortunate attack on Jim Wright and his eventual resignation, I became the Speaker. But a lot of things wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t run for Congress a long time ago, and that’s a whole separate story, and if things hadn’t been possible for me to get elected again and again, and so on.
So there isn’t a roadmap. You can’t say, “You do this and you do that and you’ll be the Speaker or you’ll be the President.” Whether its karma or whatever you want to call it, political fortune has to shine on you. And it can shine the other way – this happened with me in 1994, when a whole combination of circumstances deprived the Democratic party of majority and deprived me of my seat! I don’t think I know the name offhand, but I think the last time a Speaker was defeated in office was something like 1826. Long time ago. Anyway, I’ve always thought it was a terrific honor to be elected to Congress to represent half a million or more of your fellow citizens; whether they vote for you or not, you represent them, and secondly, to be chosen by your colleagues in the majority party to be the leader of the House.
Sadanand Mailliard: Megan, you had a question that followed on that. Since he brought up the subject, why don’t you ask your question now?
Tom Foley: Can I interject just one thing just on the Speakership? When I was elected Speaker, I got a lot of visits by other Speakers. The Speaker of the British House of Commons came to Washington, and he asked me what number of Speaker I was. I said “I’m the forty-ninth,” and he said he was the three hundred and fifty-sixth Speaker of the House of Commons. I said, “Well Mr. Speaker, that’s what we call in the US a putdown! I’m the forty-ninth; you’re the three hundred and something. He said, “Well we started in 1288, or 1377, depending on how you count the British Speakerships, and ten of us were beheaded, two on the same day, when the crown was in a very bad mood. The whole idea of speaking truth to power, as the phrase is, meant in British history it was a dangerous office to have.
The British do wonderful things by recalling their history, I watched Betty Boothroyd, the first woman Speaker, be installed in the Speakership. They sent a delegation to her seat in the House of Commons, and she holds on to the chair. The delegation pried her fingers of the chair, and she tries to stay in the chair, and they pull her out. They drag her, and she seems to resist, all the way down the isle to the Speaker’s chair and turn her around and push her into it, as a symbol that it was a dangerous job. A lot of people didn’t want to be Speaker of the House of Commons, and I’ll get another trivia question. Do you have to be a member of Congress to be Speaker?
Jonji Barber: Yes.
Tom Foley: The constitution just says the House will choose, C-H-U-S-E, its Speaker in other offices. It’s never happened, but you don’t technically have to be a member of Congress constitutionally.
Xander Crawford: In your journey of life, how do you find motivation after you’ve suffered a major defeat? And, how do you find motivation to pursue your newer goals?
Tom Foley: Well, I think you have to be able to take the bumps in the road. I think for me it was a little different when I lost the election, and I obviously didn’t want to lose the election, didn’t want to see the House majority lose, but I had been thinking about retiring, and going into private life. In my state there is a very late primary, we had a primary in September and the actual filing date expires in July, so you have to do this early or the party doesn’t have a chance to find a candidate and so forth. I waited a little too long, and then I decided that I had to run one more time, one bridge too far. When you lose an election, it’s part of the business of being an elected official, that’s what the idea is about, of people saying “Yes,” or people saying “No.” The people of the district are the people that decide who their representative is.
There’s no dishonor in being defeated, if you’re not defeated for a dishonorable reason. I was defeated largely because of a series of issues, some of which are related to the Congress, and some related to me. I was, for example, somebody who had had the endorsement of the National Rifle Association, and when I indicated that was going to support the crime bill, which contained a ban on automatic weapons. I incurred their special wrath, and secondly I had been a plaintive in a case to declare term limits on the constitution, as it applies to Congress.
Term Limits Inc, which is an organization is very much funded by one of the richest families in the US, the Hope family from Kansas, went crazy. More television time was bought in my district then had ever been bought before or since. I’m not making excuses, I lost the election, and that’s that. It’s something, again you can’t start sitting around and get depressed about. One member who left Congress earlier gave me good advice. “Don’t look back, look forward. It’s about the future; it’s not about the past.” The only things I regret, probably, are things that I didn’t do on issues and problems, not personally, not politically. I don’t regret voting, or announcing I would vote, for the crime bill. I don’t regret having brought a constitutional case, so I think those are both the right decisions. By the way, I won’t go into it, but word was spread that I had kept the vote open illegally so that the bill could pass. That’s the kind of NRA story that was put abroad.
I used to get stopped by people in airports saying, “I’m glad you’re not in Congress any more, because you kept that vote open to pass that crime bill, and that was wrong and so forth.” I used to say, “Mr. Jones,” or whatever, “Have you got five minutes? After we collect our baggage here at the airport I would be glad to tell you what really happened, and if you don’t, have a good day.” What really happened was I kept the vote open for a member who was in the chamber and hadn’t voted. I kept asking him to vote, and he finally did it by noon. I said, “Mr. So and So, please indicate whether you intend to vote or not.” He got up, the machines had been shut down, he picked up a card, you have to vote by card after the machines have been shut down, and he picked up a green card, which is a yes card. He had been sitting with a republican, he’s a democrat, they all shouted “No! No! The red card!” Then he held up the green card so that the cameras could see, and threw it down.
The story I heard was that he was retiring from Congress and he had asked the NRA to support his administrative assistance. He himself had been a longtime, very strong supporter of the NRA, and had always been supported by them. They chose to back another candidate in the primary, and he was very angry. I don’t know if that story is true or not, or whether he made his decision on other grounds, or really felt that the bill was the right way to vote, but it surprised everybody including me. I thought I was keeping the vote open for what would probably be a “No” vote, and then I might have to break the tie. If that happened I would have voted for the crime bill, so I’m not alibing the fact that that if I was called upon I would have voted for it. I don’t think we should have linked the two votes together, the crime bill and the assault weapons ban, it would have been better to do that separately. It had a lot to do, at least something to do, with us that year but the story about keeping the vote open to pass the bill is not true. Anyway, did I answer your question?
Casey Lightner: As Speaker of the House, to what extent did you choose what legislation would be considered, and what were your guiding values?
Tom Foley: Well, it’s hard to answer that question. Generally, I’d tell you the mechanism of doing it. The Speaker appoints, in a sense that’s too strong of a word, he nominates all of the members of his party on the Rules Committee. Speaker Hastert nominates all the Republican members on the Rules Committee, and they can’t be elected by the Republican conference, and then by the House, without his initiated the process by nomination. The democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi, has the same role with respect, I believe, with respect to the democratic caucus. This, by the way, is a committee. The committees in Congress are proportioned generally by the same percentage as the House of Representatives, at least that was our long-standing tradition. If you’ve got a two-thirds majority, which neither party has in recent years, if you’ve got a two-thirds majority then one third is minority and two-thirds is majority.
The Rules Committee, when I was Speaker, was two to one plus one. Whatever the other percentages were, whatever the composition of the House was. When some republicans proposed to change that, Newt Gingrich who was then the republican whip, said “Absolutely not. I’m not going to support that change. I want to support the present situation. The Rules Committee is the agenda committee of the House, it determines the agenda of the house and we take majority, we will have two to one plus one. That’s standard, and I’m going to support it for the present situation just as I’m going to demand it in the future.” Why is that important? You really need to be able to bring the votes to the floor that the Speaker determines are the issues that he wishes to represent. He’s guided, of course, by his own party and by Presidential request and by a lot of things.
In order to have some kind of order and process, the Rules Committee brings out a thing called The Rule. The Rule, in effect, sets up the matter to be voted on, the number of amendments that will be in order, and sometimes no amendments are in order called the Closed Rule, and a lot of other technical things. The House, as a whole, votes on accepting those guidelines. Upon the adoption of this rule it shall be in order to consider the bill HR1234, together the amendments thereto, and so on, and that’s what a rule is. When the Speaker decides what to do in terms of bringing legislation up, he has a number of options. One is to ask the rules committee to issue a rule, and he controls the schedule, pretty much. There are a couple of other ways to pass legislation. One is on the suspension calendar, which takes two-thirds vote. There’s no amendments on the suspension calendar, and it’s up or down, but it takes two-thirds vote to pass it. Then there is unanimous consent, sometimes you have to pass with unanimous consent.
I’ll give you an example, suppose that you’re going into recess as the House is about to do for the Memorial Day recess, and unemployment benefits for some of the Katrina unemployed are about to expire. The House might want to consider doing something about that before they go into recess, so the Speaker has to be in a position to interrupt business and bring the matter up, and so forth. One of the reasons, well there are a myriad of reasons for bringing something up, it’s hard to describe what the principles are, obviously emergency situations whether the troops in the field are going to have adequate resources in Iraq, whether there’s an emergency with a disaster, or whether there is a problem with some legislation that has to be enacted on a closed time frame.
Passing legislation is complicated, and it’s a lot easier to stop it, usually, then to conclude it. You have to pass it in the House, you have to pass it in the Senate, a conference committee has to resolve the differences between the House and the Senate, and you have to pass the conference report in the House and in the Senate, and send it to the President. He has to sign it or not sign it, and if he vetoes it then Congress has to override the veto by two-thirds. It can go a long time, and Speaker has to be able to step in and move things quickly in the House. The Senate is a different body, it has a different culture, and it has a long, deliberative process. You have to do many more things in the Senate by unanimous consent, because individual senators have a kind of a stop pulley on the bus, they can stop things pretty fast in the Senate if they start objecting. In the Senate so much of the routine business has to be accomplished by, “Mr. President I ask unanimous consent that following completion of morning business that it shall be in order to bring up such and such, together with the amendments and so on.” Those things are agreed to between the leaders of the two parties, and members almost always support them without objection, but the point is if members object then suddenly the bus comes to a halt for a while in the Senate. Obviously, the filibuster is when it comes to a halt for a considerable time. I made one mistake when I became Speaker.
I did not push very quickly for the same kind of nomination power that the Speaker enjoys with respect to the members of the Rules Committee, and for the officers of the House as well. We had a Clerk, then a Sergeant-at-Arms, the Doorkeeper, then the Postmaster when I was Speaker. They dropped the Doorkeeper’s job pretty much. The Sergeant-at-Arms, among other things, ran the House bank. The bank had been in existence for well over a hundred years; Abraham Lincoln was a member of Congress when the House bank was in existence. In any case, the General Accounting Office, now called the General Accountability Office, came to me and said that they were concerned in auditing because they audit the House Bank, that Members were being allowed to overdraft their accounts, and we’re not being required to pay any interest or anything, they’re just overdrawing. If you go to a commercial bank and you set up a checking account, it’s a standard procedure today if you have any kind of decent credit, that you can overdraft your checking account. What happens is the Bank sets up a small immediate loan, and charges you for the short time until you repay your account.
In Britain, it used to be traditional that British banks would do this just as a sort of payment for putting an account in, they would allow a certain amount of overdraft. Anyway, they told me that this was going on, that the bank was allowing members to overdraft without any charges, and what happened, apparently, is that some years back they got a small loan from members and did exactly what commercial banks did. Because the interest rates got very high during the period of the late seventies, members were objecting and so the Sergeant-at-Arms decided, on his own without consulting anybody, that they would just cover the amounts that members over drafted, with the amounts that other members had in surplus. It was kind of like a cooperative. Nobody saw anything wrong with it, I didn’t know about it, until the General Accounting Office reported it to me. I immediately called Bob Michael the republican leader and told him about it. We agreed that the bank would be instructed to straighten this out, and I gave those orders to the Sergeant-at-Arms. Nothing happened. Six months later the General Accounting Office came back, found the same condition, and went public with a public criticism. That was “The House banking scandal.”
It was a scandal without a crime, no government money was lost. It was wrong, but it wasn’t corrected as I had insisted it be corrected. Why wasn’t it corrected? Because the Sergeant-at-Arms had no particular responsibility to me. If he couldn’t be Sergeant-at Arms in Congress without my nomination, he would have done what I told him to do. I was just another vote in the democratic caucus, and I had no more influence over him then any routine member of the caucus. He was listening to both republicans, mostly democrats, but both republicans and democrats and people on both sides of the isle that were over drafting their accounts. It cost some of them their jobs, and it was a major issue that blew up in the press. I think it was never adequately explained, I don’t know if that would have made any difference but the one thing you asked about the press is that the press really loves a scandal. Just loves it. This is a very exciting town, it’s like a string, when something comes up and there’s a report of some misconduct or something that involves a public official. This, I say, was a “Scandal without a crime.” Even the jokes were wrong. The jokes were that you couldn’t take some member of Congress’ check, actually as it was; their checks were being honored whether they had money in the account or not, so it was a total mess, and as a result Congress came into bad repute. A lot of things are interesting because sometimes the public has a different idea of what has happened. Let me give you another example, I’m telling too many stories.
If you watch the Congress on CSPAN, there is a period called special orders, which happens at the end of the day. The special orders are an opportunity for members, both parties, to make longer speeches then they can usually make in the House. Usually in the House you can make a five minute speech on a particular amendment or a bill, that’s it, unless the manager of the bill gives you some additional time. You get the five minutes by offering a false amendment, strike out the last word. That’s understood in parliamentary language as being a request for five minutes to speak. They’re not going to actually strike out the last word of the bill, but your request is a technical amendment that allows you to speak, on the general issue of the bill. Are you with me? By the way we had a baseball game and the one thing that Moe Udall said about one of the members was that, the only thing he’d ever struck out was the last word. He was a pitcher on the other side. When members do special orders, they can speak for usually up an hour.
They ask permission to do this, and they take the floor. Some members of Congress in the Tip O’Neil period where on the republican side, were taking special orders and the cameras had, by decision of the house earlier, only been allowed to focus on the member speaking or the presiding officer. That was the rule for the House cameras. One time, when an interloper jumped on the floor of the House from the Gallery, and police were wrestling him to the ground, the cameras stayed right on speakers. You could see the speaker waving his arms because this intruder was being wrestled to the ground by the police. The point is that the cameras could only point to the member speaking or the presiding officer. The members in the well, speaking from the well, where the microphones are, would say something like, “You members on the democratic side, No! I want to be heard! I want to be heard! You members on the democratic side have to face the fact that your party is not dealing with the energy crisis in an appropriate way! I’ll not yield, I will not yield!” There were two people on the democratic side, and both of them are just sitting and listening. Some of these members became great parliamentary thespians; they could act out as if the house was full of people.
Tip O’Neil saw that one time, and he was so upset that he ordered the House cameras to pan the House every ten minutes, both sides of the isle. Suddenly these members, who were doing a very effective job of speaking as if the House was full, were betrayed a bit by speaking before a largely empty house. The bad side of that was the public didn’t understand that these speeches are made after the legislative day. When people suddenly saw this panning, they say, “Where are they? They’ve deserted the place!” I think the whole Congress suffered as a result of that, because it wasn’t explained to the public that the day was over and these were after hour’s speeches. Again, because we’re so afraid of having CSPAN or some other filming agency start to interpret what’s going on, that they do it very minimally. By the way, CSPAN has created a very elite corps of people in the country who know an awful lot about Congress. They are CSPAN followers, somebody once referred to them as maybe CSPAN junkies. They follow all these technical issues so that the member of Congress will get a letter saying, “Why did you against the motion to table the rule on such and such a bill?” Suddenly the member has to go back and figure out what he did and when he did it, and so forth. That’s good, to have educated and informed people watching. That’s one of the problems that happened in those days. I’ve probably gotten into story telling and missed the question.
Sadanand Maillard: We love your storytelling. That’s one of the reasons we come.
Tom Foley: I do think that when Bob Walker, who was deputy whip on the republican side, and I appeared on a CSPAN program talking about the anniversary of the coverage of the house, both of us agreed that this decision by Tip, which was a good decision in some ways, because it prevented misunderstanding, didn’t go far enough to explain why House was empty. In effect, it created a bad attitude towards the congress.
Emily Crubaugh: Hi, I’m Emily, and I was wondering if you could tell us about a time during your years in Congress where you ended up dramatically shifting your opinion on an issue?
Tom Foley: I think there are a couple of times where I voted against it before I voted for it, or voted for it after I voted against it. That happens a lot in Congress; well I’m referring to the John Kerry issue in the campaign, where he voted for the bill before he voted against. What happens in Congress is that bills up with different constituent parts. One part, particularly an appropriation bill, might include on appropriation cycle, things that you don’t think are relevant to a defense appropriation bill, and you vote against it. Very few members vote against appropriation bills, by the way, because it’s so easy to do what they do with John Kerry, which is to say “He voted against armor for our troops. He voted against combat pay for our troops.”
Those things were not separate votes in the Senate; they were part of a single bill. You can do this both ways. If you vote against a bill that funds health and human services, you can say “He voted or she voted against assistance for autistic children, voted against money for AIDS prevention, voted against money for heart, stroke and cancer research, these are parts of the appropriation bill. Because they lump a lot of issues, particularly in appropriation bills, it’s very difficult for members to vote against them without facing that kind of political charge. You ask me, what did I do that I changed my vote on dramatically? If you looked at my record you will find that I probably voted for the B1 bomber and against the B1 bomber, then finally for the B1 bomber, but it was at different times, with different levels of funding for it. I generally had a very strong record in supporting defense. I came from a tradition of Henry Jackson, who was the senator I worked for when I first came to Washington, and I’m sometimes called a Jackson democrat. I believe in a strong national defense, but I also believe, as Jackson did, in strong support for the people who are disadvantaged, for medical research, for what you call aggressive or liberal, social programs. I’m also, along with that, thinking we have to be fiscal conservatives and pay as we go, and not run up the deficit. That’s another type of democrat I would think that I am or was. In terms of dramatic changes of mind, not too many. Again, I can remember, as I said earlier, getting credit for some things that I shouldn’t have been getting credit for, and not speaking up as quickly as I should.
I’ll give you an example of that. We had one of the first bills, and earlier crime bill back in the 60’s, that provided emergency wiretapping, by police, for seventy-two hours before they had to get a warrant. This recalls the present issue. I thought, as a former prosecutor, that this was too big a loophole. My experience led me to believe that people would wiretap, and they wouldn’t do anything just wiretap without a warrant, and then if they found something or heard something, they would go get a warrant and then they would listen to the tape or use the tape as if they had a warrant. I thought that was not sufficient protections against that type of law enforcement abuse. So, I voted against the crime bill. Again, in those days it was considered very risky, very dangerous. Suddenly I’m on the front page, not my picture, but an article about me and seven or eight other members of Congress on the front page of “Guns and Ammo” marked “Honor List.”
There was, in the crime bill, the first of the mail order restrictions on selling mail order weapons. Everybody else, I think, who voted against the crime bill, voted against it because of the mail order weapon provision. They were strong supporters of the NRA. I didn’t even know the mail order provision was in the bill! I voted against it on the wiretapping! Suddenly I’m getting praise, and so forth, and I go out to my district and a member of Congress said, “I am angry at you because you voted for the crime bill.” I said no, I didn’t. I voted against. “No you voted for it!” “No, I voted against it.” Anyways, I said check the record. He checked it, and I didn’t say I voted against it for the other reason, but suddenly everybody is apologizing to me, thanking me, and so on. That’s where you get political benefits you really don’t quite deserve, but it’s very hard when you’re in the rough and tumble of politics, and it is true that you voted against the bill, to try to confound the people that are thanking you for it by saying, “I really didn’t do that to help you, I did it for another reason.”
That would be the totally honest way to do it, but as John McCain has said, “We all have an ability to rationalize, and somehow I rationalize to take the credit for that.” By the way, speaking of the NRA, I did have their endorsement for a long time. I think a lot of things are written about the NRA that is not particularly true. For me, the impressive thing about the NRA is not that they always tell the absolute truth, because I think they sometimes shave a bit, but it’s the loyalty of their members and their supporters. It’s not the money. These are people, in a lot of cases in the United States, feel very strongly about the issue. It’s one of those wedge issues that crosses party lines, and crosses other preferences, I mean I used to find myself approached, did anybody ever watch “Bonanza?” There was a character called Hoss, a great big guy, big hat, three hundred pounds, and a muscular guy. People like that would come up to me out of a pickup that had a racked up 30-30 in the back window, and had on the bumper strip, “My dog yes, my wife maybe, my gun never!” Or on the other side, “The first registered guns in Czechoslovakia.”
He would come up to me and grab my hand, usually like you’d grab a little kid’s hand, “They you so much Congressman,” tears running down his eyes, “Thank you, thank you, thank you for supporting our second amendment rights!” Then when I voted as I thought I should, on the crime bill, the bitterness of the turn around was very, very strong. I went into a plant, “Kaiser Aluminum,” where I used to get very strong steelworker union; I shook hands with them and said, “Sit down for a minute. I’ve always supported you and I’ve always worked the plant here on your behalf.” He said, “I’ll do it again if you tell me you didn’t vote against this crime bill.” I said, “No, I can’t tell you that. I voted for it.” He said, “I don’t want an assault weapon, I don’t think anybody has any business owning an assault weapon. I know under the law I could buy a couple of them in the next six months. What drives me crazy is you people in Congress seem always intent on going after us, the citizens who pay their taxes, who obey the law, and seem to find reasons to get involved with us and what we’re doing. That drives me crazy! Why don’t you work on the criminals for a while?!” He just walked away, and it’s that strong feeling that is a very strong motivator.
When the NRA endorses a member of Congress, at least in the old days, they used to have a sticker, probably still do, which says “Another sportsman for Tom Foley.” That’s clear to every member of the NRA that that is an endorsed person. The letter often says, “Stop, don’t read any more. John Jones has been a great member. Take the two bumper strips and put them on your car or pickup.” And people do! They get up and they do. That’s heavy motivation that only works when people are very, very committed. I understand that, and I respect it, but I’m also concerned that most organizations today, which are highly focused around one strongly felt issue, that moderation on the issue is usually impossible. People take one or the other position, pro-life, pro-choice, pro-gun, as they say, or anti-gun. The reality is, a lot of people aren’t anti-gun, but they think that there should be some safety locks, that their kids should be protected and so forth.
In organizations, those positions are usually not supported, or at least the factions in the organization tend to take the strongest position possible. Sometimes it’s kind of confusing, because this happens on both sides of the political spectrum, and both sides of the issue spectrum. Organizations get their memberships and their support by taking very strong positions. You’re never going to find, I don’t care what happens in the Country, you’re never going to get a letter from the ACLU that says, and I respect the ACLU, I think it probably is more important now then at past times, to have an active ACLU, that’s prefaced to what I’m about to say. The ACLU is not going to send you a letter, ever, that says, “By and large, civil liberties are in pretty good shape. I don’t think we have too much to worry about.” If you’ve ever seen a fundraising letter, we’re always on the edge of the precipice, it’s never been worse, we’re about to”—you know. There are times when that is truer then other times, but you’ll get a letter from the NRA that says “Gun rights have never been so much in question, and there’s never been so much an attack,” you know, you can fill in the spaces for any organization.
BLANK: What’s your view of the call-monitoring, call-tracking controversy?
Tom Foley: Well, first of all I haven’t been briefed. I used to be, and still do, carry a lot of classification rights; I’m cleared for a lot of things because I’m on the defense policy board. I served on a special commission in 1991 that investigated Mr. Hanson, a paid agent of the GRU and is serving a life sentence. He was the only FBI agent that was convicted of espionage. Anyway, that commission looked at the circumstance of the Hanson case, and the first day I spent signing clearances and confidentiality agreements for all the clearances that Hanson had, and he had a lot of clearances. But, I haven’t been cleared and briefed for this particular program so I’m not in a position to talk about it in any detail, and I wouldn’t if I had been briefed so that’s the disclaimer there. What the press says, I think my view is that we need to have an opportunity to examine signal intelligence at time when these are very important and dangerous circumstances that could lead to an attack on the country.
What I don’t like is that being decided solely by this President or this administration. I think the healthy thing about the fisa law was that there was a special court that was engaged to clear these surveillance programs. It’s a secret court that they have overwhelmingly responded positively to requests for authority. Many people think, and I’m sure this is true, that the law is now probably far outdated in terms of technical advances. There is still a need, in my judgment, to have the law updated if that’s the case and to have somebody else except the executive branch and the President authorizing this kind of search. I don’t believe that President Bush would misuse his authority; flatly I trust the administration not to do that. If you set up a situation where there’s no review, and only the executive decides by itself what to do and says “Trust us,” maybe in the future you won’t be able to trust them. There have been cases in the past where Presidents have tried to use power in their hands to embarrass or influence by misuse of authority. The big problem is, if you’re getting it, however it’s been gotten, now there’s a suggestion that the telephone companies have not given it but it’s been bought from third parties, that this number was called from this number. If that’s as far as you go, and you’re looking for patterns, that’s one thing. If somebody gets a hold of the information, they can start to find out who people are calling, and then you could get problems of a real intervention in privacy matter. If the law needs to be changed, I think it should be changed, I think the principle ought to be that some other body, some judicial body, like the fisa court, should have to approve. Maybe they approve the program, with reviews every once and a while, but the principle of having the judicial branch of the government oversight I think is important.
Madeline Weston-Miles: What do you think is the greatest threat to American Democracy?
Tom Foley: I think the greatest threat that I can think of, well first of all obviously a circumstance in which we would feel it necessary to impose such stringent security rules on the country, in order to avoid an outside attack, that individual liberties would be sharply, sharply curtailed, and any objection to that would be put down as opposed to the necessary national security. I’m uncomfortable, by the way, when members of Congress, whoever, say that any criticism of the war in Iraq constitutes not supporting the troops, destroying the troop morale. One senator said that even debates in the senate opposing the US position in Iraq or calling for quick resolution undermined morale. That’s an extremely slippery slope into intimidation and the denial of debate.
Every American, I think and that’s an exaggeration, but overwhelming numbers of Americans want to support our troops. The men and women fighting in Iraq deserve that support, and deserve our respect. At the same time, it’s not only legitimate, it’s necessary to preserve the right of the American people to make judgments about the decisions that put their lives at risk. It’s a big decision for the Congress and for the President to put US forces in harm’s way, and there are times in our history where that has been necessary and it will be necessary I’m sure in the future. But, we never want to stop the responsibility for discussing those decisions and justifying, in our own minds, which we’ve asked these young Americans to take that risk. Not just the risk of death, but now there’s a whole new dimension of sorts. Because of the advances of modern military medicine, many, many young men and women who would have never survived in the past survive today, but they survive in a difficult circumstance, and require special care and special circumstances for the rest of their lives. That’s an even, in some ways, even more serious responsibility for us. It defines democracy that we decide, and we take responsibility for decisions on when we take those kinds of actions.
I am very, very concerned when people say “No, it’s a sign of if not unpatriotic response, certainly failure to the troops, if you even raise questions about it, or even discuss it in public or otherwise.” That’s, I think, a great threat to American Democracy, if we go to the point of trading security for liberty. As Benjamin Franklin said, “You’ll have neither, security or liberty.” Beyond that, I’m concerned about the role of money in politics; I think there is a decision called Buckley v Vallejo, which in effect, says you can’t limit an individual’s ability to spend as much as he or she wants in an election campaign. I think that the Supreme Court may have another opportunity, sometime, to look at Buckley v Vallejo. Some people argue that it’s a matter of free speech, if somebody wants to spend huge amounts of money, either in his or her own election, or for or against a candidate. I think there should be some limits to that, because I think it’s more about giving, not freedom of speech, but an amplified role for people who have substantial funds.
That’s a controversy that goes on now, and we have people, in both parties, and very good people in both parties, exceptional people in both parties, who have spent millions and millions of dollars in their own elections. The most outstanding example of that are probably people I’d vote for, but it still, as a principle, is a little bit of a dangerous one. In time there may be qualifications, we eliminated property qualifications very early in our history, but it may be a practical necessity in the future, if you’re running for a senate seat, or running for a Presidential seat, to have special access to money, either your own, or some ability to raise it on the internet, and I think that creates a problem for the future of American democracy. Finally, income disparity. I think that we’ve got a fantastic country, I will yield to no one in saying how unusual it is, still in our society, that somebody who had very difficult beginnings in our nation, who came from another country, not speaking the language, not having friends, not having any connections of influence, and by hard work and by good fortune and other things, in a generation or sometimes two, but very quickly, has changed his life and his family’s life forever.
You can think about the Attorney General of the United States, the Secretary of State of the United States, a lot of people, the former Secretary of State, who have come not from humble circumstances always, sometimes from very good circumstances, but have had some characteristic, being an African American, being a Latino, that in previous years would have denied them an opportunity for advancement. In our country today, that’s still true, and that’s very good. What worries me is that our society is becoming more and more diverse, in terms of income, and we have more people then anybody in the world on the billionaires list. Nothing wrong with being a billionaire, I admire enormously, for example, what Bill Gates and Melinda Gates are doing, they’re doing marvelous things, but it is also a little bit of a concern that we’re coming to a country that has provided more real wealth and leisure and opportunity for people on one end, but still on the other side of this picture there are still people who work two jobs, and still have any medical care, and have to go to the emergency room with their children, and can’t absorb a single of any loss of job or circumstance.
We ought to be not so much concerned about the upper end, except I don’t think we want to dynasty, I don’t think we want to create multi-generational dynasties. Warren Buffet is not going to leave his children all that much money, because he doesn’t think it’s good for them, but other families will have an opportunity if you abolish the estate tax, totally, for everybody regardless of how many billions of dollars are involved, to transfer wealth inter-generationally, in huge amounts. Then we will have something as different from the top as the bottom as the eighteenth century Britain, with the huge, land-holding families on one end, and the people who worked in the work-houses on the other. So, I’m not against opportunity, economic opportunity, I think that is great. I just think we ought to consider not letting the extremes go too far, so that they influence the decisions of the rest of us, or the lives that Americans lead. With that I thank you very much coming again; I hope we’ll have a chance to do this again.