Former House of Representatives Speaker Tom Foley was a great leader and legislator, but I knew him best as a lover of technology -- and a very decent and honorable person.
Speaker Foley was a devout audiophile. He loved high-quality sound. He would attend International CES and spend hours in the high-end audio portion of the show, going from room to room listening to the best audio the industry had to offer. He once took a day off from his legislative responsibilities and traveled with me to Baltimore simply because he wanted to see the Polk Audio factory. We spent a delightful day with Matthew Polk.
As a legislator, he saved the consumer electronics industry from a luxury tax on consumer electronics that cost more than $1,000. Congressional leadership had agreed to impose luxury taxes on boats, jewelry, furs and cars over $30,000. Consumer electronics products costing more than $1,000 were on the list, but thankfully Speaker Foley insisted they be removed. He was aware that many of the best audio products in the world were made in the United States and he was concerned about the impact of a luxury tax on the U.S. audio industry. He was right, given what happened to the boat builders after the tax became law. Thanks to Speaker Foley, the American audio manufacturing industry continues to thrive and export products around the world.
In fact, it was Speaker Foley's love for audio products that almost brought him down. In the mid-1980s, several members of Congress got in trouble because they wrote checks for money they did not have in the Congressional Federal Credit Union. It was a common practice for the credit union to cover these checks until paychecks were deposited. When reports surfaced about this practice, members of Congress were vilified for not playing by the same rules as ordinary Americans. Speaker Foley bounced only one check, and it was to pay for a new CD player and audio receiver.
Speaker Foley supported CEA and me with his generosity. He came to New York and introduced Jack Wayman when he was being honored at the Anti-Defamation League's annual National Consumer Technology Tribute. He allowed me to serve as his aide at the Democratic convention in Atlanta, and his wife Heather introduced me to several well-known personalities and gave me floor credentials to hear then-Gov. Bill Clinton's first Democratic convention speech.
I was also privileged to spend a large portion of one weekend in the speaker's office in the Capitol, along with audio journalist Len Feldman, installing a hi-fi system with Speaker Foley. In retrospect, it was extraordinary to share the time doing installation work with the person who was third in line to be president of the United States.
But my favorite moment was a human one. Walking through the halls of the Capitol with Speaker Foley, he confided to me that he was being beaten up by both Democrats and the press because he was "too nice." Yet, he managed to get a bipartisan House to approve a ban on new spending unless offset with new revenue or spending cuts. This law kept the deficit stable for several years.
I will miss Speaker Foley. We need more people like him in Congress. His decency, passion and willingness to find common ground made him one of the best speakers in memory.
Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA)®, the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,000 consumer electronics companies, and author of the New York Times best-selling books Ninja Innovation: The Ten Killer Strategies of the World's Most Successful Businesses and The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream. His views are his own. Connect with him on Twitter: @GaryShapiro.