Speaker Foley's Job

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THE departure from Congress of Jim Wright and likely selection of Tom Foley to take over as House Speaker is a wrenching event that leaves Capitol Hill worried and exhausted. But it's also an opportunity to rebuild an institution that had become tarred with the brush of unethical behavior and bogged down at a time when much legislative work needs to be done. The contrasts between the outgoing Speaker and his successor could not be greater.

Mr. Wright relished the hardball, partisan, impetuous, Lone Ranger role that had him not only butting heads with Republican administrations and opponents across the aisle in Congress, but ruling his Democratic colleagues as much out of willpower as with mutual respect and admiration.

The pugilistic Texan is right to warn against continued vengefulness in the charges and countercharges about misconduct. But it was not just ``mindless cannibalism'' that brought him down, not simply a vendetta by Republicans chafing under 35 years of minority status. Among those 69 House rules violations alleged by his Democratic colleagues are serious charges of misconduct that add up to an abuse of authority and trust.

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Mr. Foley will be a very different kind of House Speaker. He is a moderate Democrat who comes from a conservative (largely Republican) district and trained under the late Henry Jackson. Among the adjectives used by Republicans to describe him are ``eminently fair'' and ``a man of total integrity.'' Former Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill once said (out of exasperation as much as respect) that Foley ``is a man who can see three sides of every issue.''

The 25-year House veteran has played an important role in forging consensus on such matters as the federal budget and United States policy on Central America. On other important issues - budget and trade deficits, arms control and the evolving relationship with the Soviet Union, energy and the environment, homelessness, education, sorting out and paying for the savings-and-loan mess - Congress will have to play a very major role. And it will take consensus-building leadership for that role to be a constructive one.

Constructive does not necessarily mean compliant, however, and Foley will also have to take the lead in presenting - where called for - a clear Democratic alternative to Bush administration policy, much as majority leader George Mitchell is now doing in the Senate. Democrats need to grasp the hand of partnership offered by the President in his inaugural. But there is a proper role for partisanship in the vigorous testing of ideas and challenging of assertions that makes for sound legislation.

Jim Wright's heading back to Fort Worth does not mean an end to the focus on ethics. The charges against Republican House whip Newt Gingrich and others need to be thoroughly investigated and acted upon. Fortunately, the House Ethics Committee (under prodding by Common Cause - which is to be lauded for raising the Wright issue in the first place) has become much more of a tiger on Capitol Hill.

House rules on outside income need to be tightened, and beyond that there still is much need of campaign reform to break the near-total grip of incumbency that has led to an unhealthy level of partisanship. But for now, the elevation of Tom Foley - a clear example of bipartisanship and ethical behavior - is a good beginning.

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