By Jeffrey Young - 06/08/06 12:00 AM EDT
The smoke-filled rooms where lawmakers cut deals will be history if Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) gets his way.
Noting that a smoking ban took effect in the District of Columbia in April, Waxman and 18 Democratic colleagues wrote Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) on Tuesday asking that he clear the air in the smoking havens of the House.
“Unless you act, the Capitol Complex will soon be one of the few places in the District of Columbia where the law does not protect employees and visitors for the harmful effects of secondhand smoke,” the lawmakers wrote. Congress is not subject to the D.C. law.
The Democrats single out the Speaker’s Lobby off the House floor, a favorite hangout of Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and other lawmakers who take breaks from the action on the floor to puff on a cigarette or cigar.
Boehner’s office chose to stay upwind of the controversy and declined to comment. Likewise, the Speaker’s office did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
Employing rhetoric that has proved effective for smoking-ban advocates nationwide, Waxman warns that Hill staff and visitors are exposed to dangerous smoke in the Speaker’s Lobby, in the House cafeterias and in members’ offices.
Waxman and his concerned mates can probably cross one of those locations off their list. The spending bill for the legislative branch that the House approved yesterday includes a provision ending smoking in the Rayburn cafeteria, per an amendment offered by Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) during a committee markup last month.
The Democrats also sought a vote on an amendment written by Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) that would have prohibited funding for any smoking facilities in the House office buildings. Meehan never got the chance to raise his amendment, however, despite approval from the Rules Committee. His was one of six amendments that failed because consideration of the bill and its accompanying rule took less than 15 minutes.
Waxman’s letter is far from his first attempt to ban smoking in Congress. Before the Democrats lost their majority in 1994, a Waxman bill to ban smoking in most indoor public places was working its way through the House with backing from the Clinton administration. Waxman has kept up the drumbeat throughout his time in the minority.
Clinton and Waxman ultimately had to settle for a 1997 executive order forbidding smoking in federal facilities. The rule exempted certain places, such as the White House.
Lawmakers in Washington, however, have been free to smoke ’em if they got ’em, as executive orders do not apply to the legislative branch.
A rapidly proliferating number of states, counties and cities have been restricting smoking in workplaces, restaurants and taverns. Suburban Montgomery, Prince George’s, Howard and Talbot counties in Maryland have approved strict laws restricting smoking.
D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams spokesman Vince Morris steered clear of taking sides on smoking in the Capitol but offered his concern for the well-being of the District’s congressional overseers.
“It’s in everybody’s best interest that all 435 members of Congress stay healthy,” Morris said.