CONGRESS SHOULD take a second look at the president's proposal for a further tobacco tax increase. Defeated last year, along with the rest of the anti-tobacco bill the administration supported, the idea was dismissed when the president included it again in this year's budget. It enabled him to argue that the budget was financed, but in essence it was a gimmick because he could be sure that Congress wouldn't buy it; that was the judgment. But the proposal deserves to be taken more seriously than that. It makes good fiscal and social sense alike.
Continuing to push up the price of cigarettes would help discourage smoking, particularly among the young. That's an outright plus. Meanwhile, the extra revenue would help finance, without resort to phony accounting, the level of spending that just about everyone understands Congress is going to end up approving this year; surely better to pay for it than not.
The president used the proposed tax to cover the cost of several initiatives, the largest of which would be an increase in child care subsidies, which the Senate also endorsed in principle as part of its version of the congressional budget this year. That's a good cause, but if not that, there are plenty of other claimants for the money. If Congress is not going to tap the Social Security surplus, it needs to find some extra money to finance this year's likely level of appropriations, to say nothing of the tax cuts the Republicans want to grant and the Medicare drug benefit and other new benefits the president wants to confer.
A cigarette tax increase is as sound a way of financing some combination of these as any of the leaders of either party has yet proposed. Republicans and the tobacco industry attacked the notion last year as a reversion to tax-and-spend. Is borrow-and-spend -- borrow from the Social Security fund if not from the public -- a preferable alternative? Republicans can claim in the end that they were backed into the proposal by the president; he'd be happy to take the credit/blame. It's unlikely a cigarette tax increase will pass, but if it fails it will be for the worst of doctrinal and political reasons, not on the merits.