Tom Foley: The Price of Pork

Foley brings home the bacon, but voters wonder which Washington he really represents

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This article appears in the November 07, 1994 issue of TIME under the title "Tom Foley: The Price of Pork." To subscribe to TIME magazine for $2.99 a month, please click here.

You don't have to look very far into the wheat-stubbled landscape of eastern Washington State to see what it means for this district's dusty towns and rural counties to be served by the most powerful Congressman in America. A few years ago, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers considered moving its regional operations from Walla Walla to Portland or Seattle; instead, the corps' asbestos-ridden, World War II-era barracks is being replaced with a shining $10 million building downtown. Attempts by federal budget cutters to close Walla Walla's underused Veterans Affairs Medical Center met a similar end. And an hour north of town, $94 million in federal money is flowing into the widening of a dangerous stretch of highway.

Just about everyone in Walla Walla can name a favor or two that House Speaker Tom Foley has done, with taxpayer dollars, for someone or some business that they know. But what once was praised as "constituent service" these days also goes by the name of "pork." An unusual number of voters in eastern Washington State -- and in the districts of other powerful Democrats across America -- claim that they are looking beyond the local benefits of federal largess and pondering what it's costing the country to have 435 Congressmen and 100 Senators each forcing the government to keep open another unnecessary hospital or sleepy agency office or subsidy program for well-to-do ranchers. Like other voters around the country, Foley's constituents are questioning whether their Congressman's three-decade struggle to win and wield influence in the nation's capital has torn him out of touch with the folks back home, folks who say they care as much about the debt they're leaving to their children as about how many federal dollars are spent in their state.

But it is hard to judge how serious this talk really is. While they like to think of themselves as flinty and self-reliant, Westerners are in fact heavily dependent on the Federal Government for agricultural subsidies, military bases, hydroelectric power and water projects. As Foley's constituents talk dismissively about pork in one breath, they complain about Clinton Administration efforts to increase grazing fees in the next.

Every Monday morning, five salesmen for an agricultural chemicals firm meet for breakfast at a bustling diner called Clarette's. A few weeks ago, as they were were finishing up their last cups of coffee, talk shifted to politics. Four of the five said they had voted for Foley in the past. This year none of them plan to. Ironically, the Speaker's effectiveness was one of the reasons why. "It's basically pork. Even though we live here, it just isn't right," said Bob Johnston, 37. They also think of Capitol Hill as a place where no favor is done for free. Foley knows who to lean on and which string to pull, they agreed. "But what did he give away to do that?" demanded Gerard Schille, 42.

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