TOMORROW, a House-Senate conference committee will try to iron out a compromise version of a complex overhaul of corporate taxation. The stakes are high. The bill is designed to trigger the lifting of large European sanctions against American exports, which are the product of a World Trade Organization ruling against an American tax break. Because of an unrelated glom-on, the Senate version of the bill is also the vehicle for finally giving the Food and Drug Administration regulatory control over tobacco products and for setting up a program using tobacco-industry money to buy out struggling tobacco farmers. So if the conference committee behaves responsibly, it could result in legislation that would aid American industry and bring a product that kills more than 400,000 Americans per year under control.
Unfortunately, there's another possibility -- one that seems more likely at this stage. Both the House of Representatives and the Senate produced bills laden with pork for special interests. And the House version actually left out the FDA provisions, even as it included a version of the tobacco buyout paid for with billions of dollars in public money. So the result of the conference could be a hugely expensive set of tax breaks -- ones that far eclipse the sanctions they will head off -- combined with a betrayal of public health and a giant gimme to tobacco farmers at public expense.
Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), who is chairing the conference committee, is spending the weekend putting together the draft off which the committee will work. He needs to get two messages loud and clear.
First, President Bush needs to make clear that he will veto a bill that shows up larded with reckless corporate tax giveaways. Mr. Bush has insisted he has a plan for reducing ballooning budget deficits in the next four years. If he is remotely serious about fiscal discipline, insisting that this bill be brought under control would be a good place to start showing leadership.
Second, Senate supporters of tobacco regulation need to make clear that they will pull out the stops to block any conference report that contains the tobacco buyout but does not provide for FDA regulation of cigarettes. Key House Republicans harshly oppose FDA regulation, but tobacco-state members facing voters in a month are desperate to deliver the buyout. Only if it is clear that the two cannot be separated will this long-overdue pub- lic-health initiative have a chance in this Congress. Opponents of regulation clearly think supporters of tobacco control can be bought off with pork. Shame on them if that proves true.