Mr. Foley was one of Capitol Hill’s most outspoken critics of the extreme partisanship that emerged toward the end of his career, which contributed to his defeat in the 1994 election and has since intensified so dramatically that Congress is often described as “broken.”
He was elected to the House in 1964 and served for 30 of the 40 consecutive years that his party controlled the chamber. Mr. Foley established himself from the outset as a conciliatory figure; one of his first acts after his election victory was to host a reception for the Republican incumbent he defeated to win the seat.
As he rose through the leadership ranks — from majority whip to majority leader and finally to speaker in 1989 — he became known as a consensus builder.
He helped forge a compromise that allowed the deficit-reducing Gramm-Rudman-Hollings legislation to go through in the mid-1980s. He publicly supported President Ronald Reagan, a Republican, on his controversial economic strategy. During President Bill Clinton’s administration, Mr. Foley helped him win passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement despite opposition from many other Democrats.
He was a burly man with a commanding physical presence, but especially as speaker he did not seem to relish power. “There is a degree to which you can sort of push, encourage, support, direct,” he once told the New York Times. “But the Speakership isn’t a dictatorship.”
That outlook separated him from Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr., the powerful, back-slapping Massachusetts liberal who presided over the House in the late 1970s and through most of the 1980s, and from Jim Wright, the Texas Democrat who succeeded O’Neill and was criticized for heavy-handedness.
By the later years of the Democratic majority, the party was increasingly perceived to have grown arrogant with power. Then Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, the future speaker of the GOP-controlled House, seized on the resentment to launch what became known as the Republican revolution.
One of his chief tools of political warfare — later wielded against him — was the ethics inquiry. His most prominent target was Wright, who resigned from Congress in 1989 amid a polarizing investigation into his book sales and personal business dealings.
Mr. Foley, then majority leader, succeeded Wright as speaker. For two more election cycles the Democrats held the House, but Republican momentum, fueled by Gingrich, was building. In the 1994 election, Mr. Foley was painted as a Washington insider — the figurehead of the unpopular Democratic House — and buffeted by calls to “De-Foley-ate Congress.” When he lost, he was the first House speaker to be unseated since Abraham Lincoln was president.