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Former Speaker Thomas S. Foley, a Democrat from Washington who spent 30 years in Congress as a kingpin on agriculture, ultimately leading the chamber as the “Speaker from Spokane,” has died. He was 84.
Foley was under hospice care after battling aspirational pneumonia for a year. His death was confirmed to CQ Roll Call by a House Democratic aide. According to a statement from the family, the cause of death was complications from strokes.
Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, issued a statement on Foley’s legacy shortly after news of his death broke, calling his rise from committee chairman to majority whip, majority leader and finally speaker “a natural sequence for a natural leader.”
“Forthright and warmhearted, Tom Foley endeared himself not only to the wheat farmers back home but also colleagues on both sides of the aisle,” Boehner said. “That had a lot to do with his solid sense of fairness, which remains a model for any Speaker or representative. ... With his passing, the House loses one of its most devoted servants and the country loses a great statesman.”
Boehner also quoted former Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., to Foley’s popularity in the House: “I wish he were a Republican.”
Born in Spokane in 1929, Foley grew up the son of a state Superior Court judge in a home rich with politics. By 1957, Foley had earned a law degree from the University of Washington in hopes of following in his father’s footsteps. He spent his early career working as a county prosecutor, constitutional law teacher and assistant state attorney general, all while cultivating a detached, even-handed approach to politics that became his trademark Congress.
Foley moved to Washington, D.C., in 1961 to take a job as special counsel to Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson on the old Senate Interior Committee.
The young, six-foot-four lawyer became a reluctant House candidate for the 5th District in 1964, at Jackson’s urging, and went on to defeat 22-year Republican incumbent Walt Horan in a Democratic landslide. He represented his wheat-growing constituents on the House Agriculture Committee and was the principal author of the 1967 Meat Inspection Act.
In 1975 he became the first Westerner since the Civil War to become chairman of the committee. His leadership was key to the farm bill system in which federal farm subsidies were linked with the food stamp program, creating an alliance of farm-state and urban lawmakers.
In order to protect his parochial interests in wheat and sugar beets, Foley kept major farm bills under his control in the full committee, instead of parceling them out to subcommittees.
“A strong agricultural economy is absolutely essential for a strong national economy,” Foley once said.
“Today those words still ring true,” Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said in a statement issued after his death.