Downward Mobility

U.S. Rep. Tom Foley was booted out of the 5th district in 1994 in the name of reform -- will Republicans suffer the same fate in November?

The Inlander | March 7, 2006
Last week, Tom Foley was in town, accepting a kind of long-overdue retirement dinner from Democrats in Spokane. His visit calls to mind how big a role the 5th District played in the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994 — a takeover that has lasted until now, and has spread to all branches of government.

For me, the race was perfectly summed up by a comment an Eastern Washington farmer made to the New York Times. He knew voting out the sitting Speaker of the House would be like shooting his foot off, he told the reporter, but he was going to go ahead and do it anyway.

It took me years to figure out how a person could come to such a conclusion. But lately I’m understanding it very clearly, because I feel like I’m that guy, desperately wanting things to change.

You have to remember that in 1994, Bill Clinton was in his second year, and his approval rating was at 36 percent. Talk radio was at its high point, and the president was being vilified 24/7 for being a crazy liberal who wanted to solve our problems with big government solutions. (Remember health care reform?) Meanwhile, in Congress, the post office scandal had erupted, in which Democrats were derided for sloppy accounting. (Don’t laugh; they turned it into a real scandal.)

Today, of course, George W. Bush’s approval rating is at 34 percent (in the latest CBS poll), and he’s being vilified (often by members of his own party) for being too liberal and wanting to solve all our problems with big government solutions — the Patriot Act, the Department of Homeland Security, the Medicare drug benefit. Meanwhile in Congress, even the drunken sailors are shocked by the spending, Tom DeLay has been indicted and lobbyist Jack Abramoff has left his fingerprints on many a Republican back door.

One big difference between now and then, of course, is the fact that there was no open-ended, unpopular war to debate in 1994.

Now I understand the impulse to boot Foley: It was about reform. It was about sending a strong, clear message that government needs to be more responsible. It was about enforcing the highest ideals of the American character. Unfortunately for all those people who shot their foot off in 1994, it was a sham.

Twelve years later, as former Reagan administration official Bruce Bartlett puts it in his new book, Impostor, the GOP won power by declaring D.C. “a cesspool, and then go there and treat it like a hot tub.” Eastern Washington voters have to wonder whether those calls for reform were genuine or just another cynical political ploy.

On Sept. 27, 1994, Newt Gingrich and several hundred others signed the Contract with America. It was a gimmick, sure, but it was political perfection. It addressed the latent concerns people had, and it won them Congress, with Foley’s seat the biggest prize of them all.

“The government is too big and spends too much,” the contract stated, “and Congress and unelected bureaucrats have become so entrenched to be unresponsive to the public they are supposed to serve.”

The Contract also called for a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution and the creation of an independent commission to find waste, fraud and abuse in government spending.

Today, even the most charitable reading of this GOP manifesto makes you wonder if it got the Patriot Act treatment — everybody signs on, but nobody actually reads it.

When I interviewed historian David McCullough before his visit to EWU two years ago, he said there have been times in history when our political parties sort of switched sides, and he wondered if maybe it was happening now.

“Democrats are talking about big-spending Republicans,” he said in his trademark baritone, “and Republicans are talking about our responsibilities out in the world.”

After feeling the frustration of living under a government without checks and balances, I can relate to the stand taken by principled 5th District voters in 1994. In fact, it’s something to be proud of. But with what’s happened ever since, it’s become sad — I believe our district was taken advantage of, and it continues being cheated to this day.

George Nethercutt had a seat at the House Appropriations Committee, and he was gaining seniority and the ability to make things happen in his district, not just in D.C. but here as well, simply by connecting people. Then, as the unconfirmed but never disputed story goes, he was tapped directly by the White House to give up his seat to run against Patty Murray — which, as anyone knew, was a fool’s errand only meant to keep up appearances for the GOP. The message to the 5th District: The needs of the party are more important than your needs.

Then came a choice, with three Republicans seeking to replace Nethercutt. In the primary, more voted for someone else (Shaun Cross or Larry Sheehan), but Cathy McMorris won, with the financial support of none other than Tom DeLay. If it had to be a Republican, I thought Shaun Cross would make a very strong replacement, but the party didn’t like him. The only explanation I can see is that in the current GOP, they prefer a follower to someone with his own pesky ideas. Someone who will vote his conscience and put the needs of his district before the party’s priorities is not part of the program.

DeLay’s world of political machinations depends on members like McMorris to surrender their vote to his whims. According to statistics compiled by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, McMorris has voted with DeLay 94 percent of the time.

So to review, we went from having the Speaker of the House to having a star on Appropriations to having just another vote in Tom DeLay’s back pocket. That, my friends, is downward mobility, GOP-style.

A few years after his defeat, Foley told me that, in many ways, he preferred serving as Speaker under George H.W. Bush to serving under Clinton. He also believed split government was best, with different parties in control of different branches. In 1994, 5th District voters agreed with him. In 2006, they’ll have another chance to send a message that balance must be restored.

The Inlander

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