The Last Gasp of a Smoke-Filled Room?
Friday, December 8, 2006
When the District goes smoke-free Jan. 2, at least one nicotine haven will remain: the U.S. Capitol. Lawmakers, several of whom enjoy a good cigar, have exempted themselves from the city's smoking ban, not to mention rules that forbid lighting up in federal buildings across the country.
But winds of change may be blowing on the Hill.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the Democrat from smoke-free California and the next speaker of the House, is thinking of banishing tobacco from the most popular smoking spot in the building: the Speaker's Lobby outside the House chamber. "I'm not an advocate of smoking," Pelosi said yesterday, adding that she hadn't yet decided on a ban. "I think it's dangerous to your health."
Smoking is permitted in lawmakers' offices, in two cafeterias in the House and Senate buildings and in an unmarked, cramped room in the basement of the U.S. Capitol.
But the Speaker's Lobby, the ornate space dotted with fireplaces and chandeliers, is the real smoke-filled room, the biggest and most visible space where smokers gather. The lobby, where lawmakers relax between votes and debates, is blue with smoke most days. You can smell it from the approaching hallways. Cigarette smokers claim the leather wing chairs during the day, filling the ashtrays with butts. At night, the cigar smokers take over. A smoky film clings to an oversize mirror.
"I can't breathe when I step in there," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), who has been a lonely scold against smoking for years, trying to get the Republican leaders to stamp out tobacco.
But his efforts went up in smoke.
As many as 25 percent of House members smoke, and one of the heaviest smokers is Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who frequently emerges from the House floor and heads straight to the Speaker's Lobby to consume his favorite brand, Barclay. Yesterday, when he stepped out of the chamber, he gestured to an approaching reporter that he needed a moment before talking. He made a beeline for the southwest corner of the room, pulled a cigarette from his breast pocket, lit it and inhaled deeply.
"When Boehner ascended, we figured it was hopeless," said Angela Bradbery, co-founder of Smokefree DC, which successfully lobbied for the city's smoking ban and had considered trying to direct the same effort toward Congress.
"It just seemed like too big a hill to climb," she said. "It's always amazing to me that Congress makes up the laws and rules for itself. It kind of smacks of arrogance that they don't have to abide by laws in the city in which they're working. When you walk by the cafeteria and you see people smoking, it's like a throwback to the 1950s."
Waxman says Pelosi's rise to power means the match has been lit. "When the Democrats take over, I expect this to change," he said. "She understands the consequences of secondhand smoke and she's coming from California."
Still, the situation is hazy.
Aides say Pelosi detests smoking but doesn't want to burn the Blue Dog Democrats, or conservative members of her party -- several of whom are cigar smokers but none of whom wanted to publicly stand up for smoking. "I don't really smoke," said Rep. Ben Chandler, a Democrat from the tobacco state of Kentucky, as he blew smoke rings from a cigar in the Speaker's Lobby earlier this week.
Some Republicans are privately fuming, although none wanted to admit so publicly and most asserted they can live with the change.
"Most people are resigned to the reality that there are fewer and fewer places to do this," said Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.), who smokes one to two packs of cigarettes a day. "Behind every smoker is one who wishes they never started. The problem in this town is if you drop one vice, you'll get a worse one."