WASHINGTON — SPEAKER of the House Tom Foley (D) of Washington acknowledged some subtle concerns about a further loss of civility and effectiveness in Congress at a Monitor breakfast yesterday.
His friendly, avuncular Republican counterpart, Minority Leader Robert Michel of Illinois, will be succeeded at the end of the year by the more tart-tongued and aggressively conservative Newt Gingrich of Georgia.
Mr. Foley calls Mr. Gingrich an ``extraordinarily bright, able, articulate spokesman'' for his party.
But Mr. Michel, he says, is ``the best of a pattern of civility in party leadership that is probably changing.'' The more hard-charging partisanship is a cultural shift that cannot be held back, he says. But if every issue before Congress becomes heated, ``the place doesn't work very well.''
When action becomes bottled up because of intense partisanship, it generally is worse for the majority party, he adds. Members of the majority, meaning Democrats, tend to be held responsible as the people who run the place. ``I hope and trust that we won't have a minority policy of shutting the place down, burning down the House,'' he says.
As a case of how the tone of discourse is already changing, Mr. Gingrich attended a Monitor breakfast on Tuesday and dropped the teasing prediction that a serious new scandal was going to break open in the House in the next month. He would explicate no further.
In answer, Foley yesterday said that both he and Michel had investigated charges of an irregularity in voting by a member and had found no evidence whatsoever to support them.
Foley notes a poll this week showing that the public believes gridlock still prevails in Congress.
This is ironic, he says, since last year was the most productive in turning out legislation since Eisenhower was president and Republicans ran Congress.
One of the many factors that have ``distorted'' the image of Congress, he explained, is that it is the ``only controversial branch of government.'' While presidential administrations demand that officials speak with one voice, and judges only dissent in the most civil terms, Congress is a jarring clash of interests whose members criticize each other endlessly.
``We're the cockpit of democracy,'' Foley says, where organizations compete for resources. ``The [American Civil Liberties Union] does not raise money by sending out fundraising letters that `Congress is respecting civil liberties; we can all rest easy,''' he jokes. Like other interest groups, the ACLU it stirs up support by sending out alarms, he says.