The problem with being a ward of Congress can be neatly summed up in the Bilbray amendment to the fiscal 1999 D.C. appropriations bill, which passed the House last week. Thanks to Rep. Brian P. Billbray, a Republican from California, children in the District of Columbia could be criminally prosecuted for succumbing to the sophisticated marketing techniques of the tobacco industry and retailers. You heard it right. The same House of Representatives which recently ducked the chance to pass national legislation toughening penalties against companies for targeting tobacco advertising at children has decided instead to penalize children in the District for being taken in by that advertising and doing what Big Tobacco spends billions annually trying to get them to do.
If the Senate goes along with the Bilbray amendment, which sailed through the House by a 283-138 vote youngsters under 18 caught with a cigarette in the District will be at risk of being arrested, fined, forced to perform community service or attend tobacco cessation classes and losing their driver's permits. Talk about congressional behavior out of sync with professed ideals.
Last month the American Lung Association set out to discover whether teens could buy tobacco in a certain location in the District. In on sting, it found that cigarettes could be bought in five out of nine attempts. The location: the U.S. Capitol complex. (All attempts in House office buildings were successful.) Yet Congress, which doesn't enforce the existing prohibition against selling to teens on its own grounds, wants to show its muscle by cracking down on kids in the District.
The House action should be seen for what it is: a cheap exercise in political opportunism. When the House was asked earlier this year to provide the Food and Drug Administration with more funds to enforce laws prohibiting sale of tobacco to minor nationally, it looked the other way. And when the District government sought budget authority to enter into a contingent fee arrangement with a law firm for representation against the tobacco industry so the city could recover Medicaid costs paid for treating smoke-related illnesses in the same way several states have, the relevant House and Senate appropriations subcommittees - headed by tobacco-state legislators - said no. Ironically, it will be those same congressional sons of Big Tobacco who are expected to temper the Bilbray language when the bill reaches the House-Senate D.C. budget conference committee.
For the tobacco industry, the District offers the best of both worlds. Blame for smoking addiction is shifted from the industry to its younger victims, even as the D.C. government is prevented from recovering the costs of treating the smoking-related damage that results. Is this a great legislative system or what?