WHEN Tom Foley rose to the speakership of the House of Representatives less than three years ago, he seemed the natural choice.
In contrast to Texan Jim Wright, whose short tenure as Speaker was marked by his highly partisan style, the Washington State Democrat was welcomed as a judicious and low-key legislator, someone who would rise above partisanship and heal the rift in the badly divided House.
Now, as the House bank scandal continues to make headlines, it is that very style that has gotten the congenial Mr. Foley in trouble.
Critics say the speaker didn't act quickly or forcefully enough when informed that the bank was allowing members penalty-free overdrafts - and that the House sergeant at arms himself was kiting checks.
Foley also did not appear to understand the public-relations dynamite he was handling when he insisted until the 11th hour that the House ethics committee should release only the names of the top few dozen check-kiters and not the entire list of 355 current and former members who wrote at least one overdraft over a 39-month period. Fear of being accused of a cover-up led the House to vote overwhelmingly for full disclosure.
A few Democrats have denounced Foley on the House floor. One, five-term Rep. John Bryant of Texas, last week called on Foley to retire at the end of this year. Rumors have swirled on Capitol Hill that there may be a move afoot to unseat Foley and his deputies in the leadership - if not now, then in January, when the next Congress convenes. But the rumors remain only speculation.
At a Monitor breakfast last Friday, Foley maintained that his leadership is not in jeopardy. He defended his actions, saying he acted "within a matter of hours" to address the problems of the bank when the head of the General Accounting Office, an investigative arm of Congress, approached him on Dec. 19, 1989, with details of bad management at the bank.
"I'm the only Speaker that I know in the modern history of the Congress that addressed the problems of the bank," said Foley, who as Speaker is next in line for the presidency, after the vice president. "So I'm concerned, deeply concerned, that the procedures and the written orders and new system that we had installed in the bank in early 1990 were not carried out."
"I'm one person; I'm doing my best," Foley said later. "But I'm certainly like everybody else, subject to retrograde examination and suggestions that this or that or the other thing could have been done better. Which of us is not?"
More than trying to defend himself, though, Foley sought repeatedly to defend the institution of Congress, whose image is at an all-time low in public-opinion polls, and correct what he sees as misperceptions among the public about the bank scandal and about how members of Congress comport themselves in general.
Foley, his voice rising in anger, listed what he sees as public misunderstandings of the check scandal: Most people do not know the bank is no longer operating.
Foley ordered it closed last October. Most people think taxpayer money was used to cover bad checks. Most think there were huge losses. Most think there were hundreds of checks bounced and kited.
The last point is a technical matter. The bank did not generally bounce checks. When a check came in for which there were insufficient funds, the bank simply held it until the funds were there.
The bank was not even a bank at all; it was a cooperative for House members, in which members pooled their monies and covered temporary overdrafts with their own resources.
Foley says he is not trying to blame Americans' growing disillusionment with public institutions on "external causes."
But "there's a chorus trying to stimulate anger, too; political candidates, radio talk shows have a vested interest in creating angry responses. So there's a kind of crusade, almost, a sermonizing of discontent that's going on in the country, steaming people up and calling into question everybody's private and public ethical standards, creating in part a vortex of dissatisfaction...."
"I think it has great dangers for this society - because it, one, isn't true!" says Foley, showing rare pique.
"It's fine to look at reality and to look at serious problems that exist; but the fact that people are, in effect, being told that their institutions are corrupted and that their officials are not interested in public values, that there is a cynicism about power and position, that people are living gilded and separate lives.... All untrue! All untrue!"
Just to make sure, though, that the public sees its top officials living in the real world, Congress and the executive branch have been almost racing to shed perks - from free prescription drugs for members of Congress to the secretary of state's government-subsidized personal travel. By week's end a bipartisan task force will report to the Speaker with recommendations for reform.