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House Speaker Tom Foley of Washington, said to be an able and thoroughly likeable man, is under fire as he rounds out a year as the leader of congressional Democrats. He deserves every bit of the criticism and more.

Foley, like his counterpart, Sen. George Mitchell of Maine, the Senate Democratic leader, represents what's now the flaccid domination of the Incumbency Party - not the Democrats - over Congress; the disappearance of sharp political difference, the victory of perpetual compromise, the celebration of legislative mush.The two Democrats and their less powerful mirror images who lead House and Senate Republicans function mainly to supervise favors and arrange schedules so legislative work won't conflict with far-flung freeloads and collection of re-election campaign money.

Democratic and Republican leaders put on their serious TV faces as the occasion demands, speak the forceful nonsense of polished politicians and preside over an institution that's almost barren of any accomplishment except the near guarantee of risk-free service tied to re-election.

The rap against Foley is that he's not tough enough in partisan disputes and he's not the outspoken and acerbic Democratic leader who served as speaker before him, Jim Wright of Texas.

But Wright and his now-departed House Democratic whip, Tony Coelho of California, were just louder in bickering with Republicans over trivia and, in fact, represented even more than Foley the decline of genuine Democratic partisanship.

The fall of congressional Democrats from partisans who risked mightily and sometimes accomplished a lot to gatekeepers like Foley and Mitchell can be compared with Republicans. They've also become devoted to incumbency.

A most shameful and convincing proof of surrender of Democratic partisans to the self-interest of incumbency and expediency is the passage last year of a minimum-wage bill, an outrage hailed by Foley and Mitchell as a "victory" for working people.

In eight years the $3.35-an-hour minimum wage had not been raised, and majority Democrats couldn't even push it up to $4.55 an hour. They settled for $4.25 an hour beginning in 1991.

This came in the same legislative season when the Incumbency Party of the House raised its own pay from $89,500 a year to $124,500 and also approved legislation requested by Bush for a cut in the capital gains taxes of the wealthy.

The downfall of the majority Democratic leadership in Congress to the status of school monitors who ring the bell and count absentees is no argument that they should be replaced by majority Republican school monitors.

More radical surgery is needed to remove the shared bipartisan belief that the first objective of public service is re-election. A potential cure is in the proposal for a constitutional limit on congressional service, no longer than 12 years total in the House and Senate.

It would at least demolish the hold of the Incumbency Party. It might even re-infect Congress with honest partisanship and clear political choice.