Education High on Agenda Of New Speaker of House

By Reagan Walker — June 14, 1989 3 min read

Washington--Representative Thomas S. Foley, the Washington State Democrat who was elected Speaker of the House last week, has identified education as a top priority on his legislative agenda, according to his aides.

And education observers expressed optimism last week that the elevation of the compromise-oriented legislator to the nation’s third-ranking constitutional office would strengthen the bipartisan approach to education issues.

But Mr. Foley takes the helm of the House at a time when a bitter ethics debate has driven deep divisions between Republicans and Democrats.

Mr. Foley replaced Jim Wright, the Texas Democrat who resigned from both the speakership and his House seat after allegations that he had violated House ethics rules.

Mr. Foley was elected June 6 by a party-line vote of 251 to 164.

Change of Style

In interviews, Mr. Foley has said that strengthening elementary and secondary education will be one of his major long-range goals as Speaker. He has also promised action on parental-leave and child-care legislation.

“Speaker Foley considers education a chief concern, especially as it relates to international competitiveness,” said a press aide. “He is also concerned about drug-free schools.”

Education advocates here said the transition from Mr. Wright to Mr. Foley is likely to be more one of style than of substance.

“We have the same cast of characters, the same national needs, and the same Democratic agenda,” said Michael D. Edwards, director of Congressional relations for the National Education Association. “The difference will be how the goals are accomplished.”

The n.e.a. was one of the three largest contributors to Mr. Foley’s 1988 re-election campaign, giving $10,000, the maximum amount allowed by law.

Mr. Foley is known on Capitol Hill for his cautious, consensus-building approach to legislation, lobbyists said. Much of his 25-year career in the House has been focused on the Agriculture Committee, where a careful balance of regional interests is needed in order to move legislation.

That style is widely seen as contrasting with Mr. Wright’s method of leading the House. The former Speaker was known for taking risks and for making decisions without consulting many in the party.

Although Mr. Foley has not held a key position of influence over education legislation, lobbyists said he could be counted on for a supportive vote and for help during leadership negotiations over the budget and other issues.

Transition of Power

Education lobbyists and House staff members also said that the change at the top was not likely to pose any problems for education legislation.

“The transition has slowed down the labor agenda more than education,” said a spokesman for the Eduel10lcation and Labor Committee.

The spokesman noted that the House has already passed a key piece of legislation in the 101st Congress, the reauthorization of federal vocational-education programs. The committee also plans to move soon on the school-lunch reauthorization, the spokesman said.

Education lobbyists added that they also are keeping a close watch on the elections for the second- and third-ranking leadership positions among House Democrats.

“People in those positions are actually the ones who are more involved on a day-to-day basis,” said Mr. Edwards. “They are responsible for gathering the votes once a bill reaches the floor.”

Representatives Ed Jenkins of Georgia and Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri are seeking to replace Mr. Foley as majority leader.

In the running for majority whip are Representatives David E. Bonior of Michigan, William H. Gray 3rd of Pennsylvania, and Beryl Anthony Jr. of Arkansas.

The whip post was left vacant by the departure of Representative Tony Coelho of California, who announced May 26 that he would resign rather than face an ethics investigation of his personal finances.

Elections for those positions, which will be held in the Democratic Caucus, were expected this week.

A version of this article appeared in the June 14, 1989 edition of Education Week as Education High on Agenda Of New Speaker of House