Where there's smoke there's fire, and both are likely to engulf the House this week when southern legislators attempt to push through a revamped federal tobacco support program.
Rep. Charlie Rose (D-N.C.), architect of the new plan, intends to call it to a vote today on the House suspension calendar, which is usually reserved for non-controversial measures.
The tobacco program, however, is anything but non-controversial.
The new legislation would make the biggest changes in the support program since it began in the 1930s. If the new program goes into effect, Rose said, it will eliminate all federal expense (except an estimated $15 million annual administrative cost) and substantially alter the highly controversial allotment system that permits government franchise holders to control the market.
But unhappy tobacco critics are crying "foul" over Rose's tactics.
One of them, Rep. Bob Shamansky (D-Ohio), led the denunciations last week, protesting to the House that Rose's tobacco express was out of control.
For example, no Washington hearings were held on the plan. Rose's tobacco subcommittee approved the bill last Tuesday, the same day it was introduced. He got the full Agriculture Committee to thwart major amendments and adopt the bill a day later.
Another of the critics, Rep. Thomas E. Petri (R-Wis.), expressed concern about the procedures, as did representatives of national cancer, heart and lung-disease groups that are gearing up to take another whack at the support program.
And Rep. Paul Findley (R-Ill.), who tried without success to amend the bill in committee, warned that Rose and his allies were inviting more trouble for the tobacco program, which last year came under the severest attack since its inception.
"Time is important," Rose argued in an interview. "We need to get this rolling. We want to have this passed as soon as possible. The first of the tobacco markets opens in Georgia July 15."
Assuming quick House passage of the bill, Rose said, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) is waiting to shepherd it through the Senate, where even more trouble may be lurking.
Outflanked by Rose in the House, the health organizations now intend to focus their lobbying effort on the Senate. During last year's farm-bill debate, the tobacco program survived in the Senate by a few votes--and that was without a major health-lobby effort.
Tobacco's scare in the Senate and its close call in the House, where a Shamansky amendment to kill the program lost by only 47 votes, set the stage for the changes Rose has orchestrated.
The farm bill directed that the program be restructured to operate at no cost to taxpayers, a response to criticism of government support of tobacco while it spends millions trying to discourage smoking.
"We are not offering this bill as the ultimate answer to all the objections," Rose said, "and I wish it were politically possible to go farther . . .but we have kept our commitment and we have come up with a plan that gets the subsidy out of the program."
"We had hearings in every major tobacco state--10 on my own and one in concert with Sen. Helms. The bill we've come up with is a distillation of that wisdom. There was no purpose in having Washington hearings," he said.
Now under new attack, Rose has modified that a bit. According to congressional sources, after meeting Friday with angry health group representatives, he agreed to hold a round of hearings here to let them comment on the proposed program changes.
According to a recent study by the General Accounting Office, about a fourth of the nation's 500,000 tobacco allotments are owned by individuals and institutions who do not actually grow the flue-cured and burley leaf.
They lease their allotments to farmers who must include these rental charges as part of their production costs. Under the price-support program, that in turn has forced up market prices and made U.S. tobacco less competitive with foreign types.
Rapid changes in cigarette-makers' buying habits have led to an accumulation of more than 400 million pounds of flue-cured tobacco in government stocks in part because of the less costly imports. Experts fear that the government could suffer massive losses because of low quality and deterioration of the stockpiled leaf.
The new program would make these major changes, which Rose and tobacco-staters contend will reduce government costs and make U.S. tobacco more competitive:
* Corporations, utilities and institutions must give up their allotments. Schools, churches, banks, land companies and other non-agricultural entities now collect millions in rent from their allotments.
* Non-farming individuals holding allotments would not be forced to sell them, but they would have to share in the financial risk of the farmer who rents the allotments. Future allotment buyers also would have to share in the farming costs.
* Farmers would pay per-pound assessments into a fund to cover any future government costs in the program, such as the stockpile losses and interest payments that have cost the Treasury at least $600 million since 1933.
* The secretary of agriculture would be empowered to curb increases in price support levels for flue-cured tobacco, the major and most lucrative of the American leafs, as a means of regulating program costs and stimulating competition.
Even with those changes, the critics are not fully mollified. "They still don't end the allotment system," said a Petri aide. "We look at it as a cosmetic that really doesn't get to the evils of the tobacco support program."