Another Over-Reach, Maybe a New Ending

They say history repeats itself. That's exactly what happened earlier this month with the tobacco bill. Supporters of the measure made many of the same mistakes supporters of health care reform made four years ago. And opponents of the tobacco bill followed the same script opponents used to kill health care reform.

The tobacco bill, like the health care measure, began as a popular cause. In 1994, it was guaranteed health insurance for all Americans--''a comprehensive package of benefits that can never be taken away,'' as President Clinton described it when he introduced the program in September 1993. In 1998, the cause was an attack on teen smoking. ''I have been working three years now to protect our children from the dangers of tobacco,'' the President said a few days ago.

In 1994, the Clinton Administration over-reached. It produced a massive health care reform blueprint with complex new taxes and regulations. This year, supporters of the tobacco bill over-reached. The original deal between 40 state attorneys general and the tobacco companies would have raised $ 368 billion over the next 25 years for anti-tobacco programs. When the deal went before the Senate, supporters thought they had the tobacco companies on the ropes--and the cost mushroomed to $ 516 billion. In his budget this year, the President proposed using tobacco revenues to pay for more than $ 65 billion in new spending on child care, health care and education.

Suddenly critics had their target. ''Perhaps more addictive than nicotine is the urge of government to tax and spend and regulate,'' John D. Ashcroft, R-Mo., said on the Senate floor. ''It is time for us to break the habit.''

Supporters over-reached again when they removed from the bill limits on the legal liability that tobacco companies would have to face from lawsuits. The tobacco industry walked away from the bill--and vowed revenge. ''Over the next several months leading to the election in November, we are going to have serious discussions with people in this country about the quality of debate in this town and the lack of leadership,'' RJR Nabisco Inc. chairman Steven Goldstone warned on April 8. ''Voters in this country will hold representatives accountable.''

The first of those ''discussions'' turned out to be a $ 40 million dollar nationwide TV ad campaign. Remember the ''Harry and Louise'' ads, run in 1994 by the Health Insurance Association of America, criticizing the Administration's health care plan? The tobacco industry campaign cost almost three times as much. The tobacco ads raised the same fears--about politics (''Now politics has taken over'') . . . tax hikes (''Even with a huge budget surplus, does Washington really have to raise taxes again?'') . . . and a vast new government bureaucracy (''Washington wants to raise half a trillion dollars in new taxes, spend billions on federal programs, create 17 new government programs'').

In 1994, Americans feared that if the health care plan passed, they would be worse off. This year's ads raised the same fears about the tobacco bill: ''The last thing we need in this country is a black market in cigarettes, but that is exactly what will happen if Washington raises cigarette prices to $ 5 a pack.''

Senate Republicans brandished polls showing that the public believed supporters of the tobacco bill were more interested in getting additional tax money than in cutting teen smoking. ''It was exactly like the Clinton health care bill,'' Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, said. ''It looked like everybody in the world was for this bill. In Washington, it looked like this bill was totally irresistible. But yet when you got outside of Washington, back in America, the public was either totally uninterested in this issue or they were against it.''

Is that true? An ABC News poll taken immediately after the bill failed showed Americans divided over whether the Senate did the right thing or the wrong thing. And divided over whether the bill went too far in raising taxes and expanding government programs. Perhaps most revealing, almost two-thirds of the public thought the bill would not have reduced teenage smoking.

In the end, asserting the bill had gotten out of control, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., let it die three votes shy of the necessary 60-vote majority needed to end debate. Democrats vowed revenge. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts warned: ''The final vote that will be cast will be cast on Election Day.'' Republicans vowed to pass a better bill. Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma promised, ''We are going to put in more money than the President requested to combat teenage smoking this year, and it is going to pass both Houses of Congress.''

The health care fiasco was a major issue behind the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress. Democrats believe the defeat of the tobacco bill gives them the issue they need to retake control of the House this year. In the ABC News poll, most Americans said the issue would not affect their vote. But 72 per cent said they believed the Senate killed the bill because of pressure from the tobacco industry.

''There's only one reason this thing didn't pass,'' White House chief of staff Erskine B. Bowles said, ''and that's the $ 40 million that the tobacco industry spent on it and the $ 12 million worth of campaign contributions they have made.'' That issue could have traction with voters this fall, regardless of how they felt about the bill itself. History may repeat itself, but sometimes it has a different ending.

William Schneider is a resident fellow at AEI.

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