Through the upheaval of Democratic leadership, the fight with the White House over capital gains and the end-of-session pay raise, House Speaker Thomas S. Foley has been able to maintain his dry sense of humor.
During his last daily news conference before Congress adjourned last month, the Washington Democrat took note of the first live telecast of the proceedings of the British House of Commons."I know you're going to think they are much more witty and much more stimulating in every way," Foley, an ardent admirer of Britain's parliamentary system, said of his British counterparts.
"What I understand from reading the paper is that British television consultants have been suggesting that they behave like U.S. congressmen, which will make it a dull place, indeed, over there if they do."
Foley went on to say that the speaker of the British House of Commons recently asked him what number speaker he was.
"I said I was the 49th," Foley said. "He said he was the 634th. They generally date the speakership from 1377.
"And I said, `Well, that's what we call a putdown in the United States, Mr. Speaker.'
"And he said, "Well, eight of them were beheaded, two of them on the same day.' "
After six months as speaker, Foley also has been able to impose his leadership style on a House that was soured by deep, partisan divisions that climaxed in the resignation of former Speaker Jim Wright of Texas.
Foley has preached the doctrine of cooperation, not confrontation, and reduced the bitterness and tension by working closely with Republican leaders to create an atmosphere in which policy differences, rather than personal or partisan differences, dominate the debate.
As the first session of the 101st Congress ground to a close, House Minority Leader Bob Michel of Illinois introduced a resolution thanking Foley for the "able, impartial and dignified manner" in which he had run the House.
"Part of the achievement has been getting the focus of Congress back on the legislative agenda," Foley said in an interview. "I don't accept the notion that Democrats should be confrontational and resist everything the administration does."
Despite lingering grumblings from some Democrats that Foley needs to be more combative, the speaker said he has no intention of changing his approach.
"I am not a basher," Foley said. "Just to be an opponent of the president every day of the week because I'm a Democrat and he's a Republican is not what I think the public had in mind. . . . That doesn't mean we will be a Greek chorus of background for the administration."
Foley gave the first session of Congress a grade of B, pointing with pride to legislation bailing out the savings and loan industry, raising the minimum wage, increasing funding for the war on drugs and overhauling existing oil spill liability laws.
Foley also defended the pay increase, which was coupled with what he called the "most important" ethics reforms since 1977.
"I don't fool myself that this is always the most popular legislation with the public," Foley said of the pay raise.
Foley said he was disappointed there was no final action on child-care legislation and that both Congress and the administration "wasted time and energy" on an "ill-timed, ill-conceived" proposal to cut capital gains taxes.