Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 
Waxman's Smoking Gun

By David G. Young 

WASHINGTON, DC, February 10, 1998 --  

Poor Henry Waxman. Last week the congressman received a harsh lesson about the potential evils of government power, but tragically failed to learn anything from it. Most people remember Waxman as the obstinate chairman of the 1994 tobacco hearings that led to incredible video clips of tobacco executives denying the dangers of cigarettes. For Waxman (D-CA), these hearings were a first step in his dream to bring tobacco under the control of the federal government. Someone should have told him to be careful what you wish for.

Last week, the Clinton Administration told congressional Republicans that it would be willing to accept limits on tobacco industry lawsuits in order to achieve its beloved comprehensive tobacco settlement. Waxman and his allies reacted with fury. After Waxman spent years amassing government power to fight against the tobacco industry, Republican congressmen were poised to deliver the arsenal into the hands of his enemy.

Under the terms of the Republican proposals, tobacco companies would receive limited immunity from civil lawsuits and a dismissal of government claims in return for paying the federal government $368.5 billion over the next 25 years and giving up their right to advertise tobacco. The big winners, of course, would be the tobacco companies and the federal government. The big losers would be the smokers -- the very people who the settlement is supposed benefit. The government would strip smokers' constitutional right to sue for damages and force them to pay steep surcharges on cigarettes to fund the tobacco settlement. What would smokers get in return? Absolutely nothing. President Clinton's budget proposal spends the money on expanding federal and state bureaucracies. The Food and Drug Administration alone -- which served as Waxman's partner in crime during the tenure of Chairman David Kessler -- will receive $2 billion per year. 1

In its present form, the tobacco settlement amounts to a deal with the devil. The government would agree to let the tobacco industry off the hook for making a product that kills millions of people in return for a huge cash payoff. The only thing that could make the deal shadier is if the money were to go directly into the politicians' campaign accounts. By increasing their bureaucracy, the politicians expand their power base while ignoring the needs of smokers.

The failure of the settlement to help smokers is of no concern to Waxman, who contemptuously dismisses advocates of smokers' rights as pawns of the tobacco industry. Had Waxman's Democratic colleagues kept their majority in the House, there is no doubt that the proceeds of the settlement would have gone to expand the bureaucracy anyway. Waxman wanted to screw the tobacco companies and the smokers. Republicans, who rely on large contributions from tobacco executives, are content to screw just the smokers. This is heresy to Waxman because it lets his straw-man enemy off the hook. As the originator of the process, this makes him look terrible. The legislation may lead to the exoneration of the tobacco industry while the people he portrayed as the victims are hit with billions of dollars in added expenses.

Waxman's experience provides a perfect lesson about why you don't want to put power in the hands of the government. Activists dream of codifying their agendas because they think they have all the answers. This works fine -- for as long as they also have all the power. Elections change the people who have power. Elections change the agenda. Only the government's power remains.

Despite his opposition to the Republicans' proposals, Waxman is ultimately to blame for this severe threat to smokers' constitutional rights. He initiated the process that led to the proposed settlement -- the Republicans are merely reacting to it. Now that President Clinton has made his proposed budget contingent upon the tobacco settlement, it is quite likely that he will agree to Republicans' demands for limited immunity for tobacco companies.

Related Column:
Marlboro Renaissance
The Future Resurgence of Tobacco
, August 12, 1997

1. The Washington Post, February 3, 1998