I was minding my own business the other day, pondering the mundane mysteries of traffic congestion and wondering how those folks in Tooele County know that the crickets attacking them are "Mormon" crickets when the phone rang. It was Donna Shalala, secretary of health and human services.
Cabinet members don't often ring my phone, but I had no illusions about my own importance. Shalala was trying to send Sen. Orrin Hatch a message to back off his tobacco bill, and she figured the best way to do that was through his hometown editorial page editor."I love Senator Hatch," she said, her voice ringing with a cooperative, bipartisan tone that sounded sort of like one of those ringside bells. "But he can't block this historic opportunity."
The "historic opportunity" she referred to is a bill sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., which would impose $516 billion in taxes and other regulations on cigarettes, including advertising restrictions and quotas for a reduction in teen smoking. The bill goes far beyond one sponsored by Hatch, which would impose taxes and fines in the neighborhood of $428.5 billion.
Not long after the secretary hung up, I had the senator on the line. He countered everything Shalala said and talked about how the universal hatred of the tobacco industry is going to "kill the golden goose."
"Everybody knows it's a bad bill," he said about McCain's legislation. "They (its supporters) just want to beat their chests and say they beat big tobacco," when in reality they will have mired the issue in courtrooms for years to come.
It was unusually high drama for my little telephone. Here was a matter of immense national significance being pitched in my ear with the implication that I should judge, and that my judgment would have a profound influence on the outcome. I'm not sure I believe it, but here goes. My judgment is this: Congress and the president ought to quit tinkering with tobacco and let the states' original settlement stand.
The first rule when dealing with anything political, whether on a national or local level, is that things are not always as they appear, particularly during an election year.
Given that, is the McCain bill, as the senator says, merely an exercise in election year chest beating? Or is it, as the secretary said, a historic opportunity to sock it to an industry that deliberately tries to kill children by hooking them on a deadly product?
The answer should be fairly obvious. When politicians begin arguing over who is toughest and strongest against a dreaded foe, such as tobacco, you know the debate has gone beyond reason and entered the realm of the absurd.
The second rule is to always watch where the money is going. A pile of hundreds of billions of dollars is a lot, even to a member of Congress. But if cigarettes are deadly, as I believe they are, then lawmakers have to consider this question: If it is morally reprehensible to entice young people to smoke, isn't it also morally reprehensible to share in the profits from such a venture?
In other words, is it right for government to become dependent on tobacco money, thus providing a powerful incentive to make sure people continue to smoke?
This answer ought to be obvious, as well. When government taxes cigarettes, it ought to dedicate that money to fixing the problems cigarettes have caused, not to propping up other programs. Yet Congress seems to be taking the McCain bill and treating it like a potential windfall.
A few days ago, senators even went so far as to talk about using the cigarette tax to eliminate the marriage penalty in the tax code. How is the marriage penalty connected to cigarettes? By the fact that too many marriages are going up in smoke?
The third, and perhaps most important, rule is to study how an issue came to be. One year ago, Congress had no interest in attacking the tobacco industry, which has been the source of a lot of nice campaign money. Then, the attorney general in Mississippi hit on a great idea. He sued tobacco to recoup the Medicare payments his state had made to cover tobacco-related illnesses. Suddenly, a tobacco industry that had never lost a court case was on the run. Forty states signed on, including Utah, and the tobacco companies were forced to agree to a $368.5 billion settlement.
But for the settlement to be valid, Congress had to enact it as law. Beware of anyone who says, "I'm from Congress and I can make that settlement better for you."
I hate to give Shalala the impression she wasted the cost of a long-distance call. She was pleasant to speak with. But I don't see how McCain's bill, which takes the settlement and turns it into something the tobacco industry will take to court, has helped.
Hatch's bill makes more sense. But, really, why can't Congress recognize the hard work of 40 state attorneys general and just ratify the original agreement?
Now, back to those religious crickets . . . .