Bill Status

Tobacco bill lights up Congress

One of the hottest items on the congressional agenda is the pending fight over comprehensive tobacco legislation. The bill that will be on the Senate floor is S. 1415, sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the Commerce Committee chairman. On the whole, the McCain bill gives away far too much to an industry which has done incalculable harm to the nation's health. Most alarmingly, S. 1415 would cap the tobacco industry's total liability for all civil damages and penalties for all past and future wrongs at $6.5 billion per year, just 5 percent of the estimated costs of the damages caused by their products. Moreover, the bill completely immunizes the parent corporations of the large tobacco companies from all civil damages and penalties and would let the lawyers and public relations firms who aided and abetted Big Tobacco off scot free.

Public health advocates are also concerned about other aspects of the bill, including the relatively small price increase (an increase of at least $1.50 would be much more effective in reducing youth smoking), the inadequate provisions for document disclosure and the so-called "lookback" penalties in the bill -- designed to penalize the tobacco industry if it fails to sufficiently reduce youth smoking -- which are too weak to effectively deter marketing to children. Advocates plan to push for amendments addressing the problems, particularly the liability caps and other special protections for the industry, contained in the bill. Despite the tobacco companies' posturing, Congress does not need industry permission to pass strong legislation, and the McCain bill must be significantly strengthened in order to be effective.

In the House, it appears that long-overdue legislation reforming the campaign finance system will finally be voted on. Having overcome the House Republican leadership's stall tactics, pro-reform forces are gathering behind the Shays-Meehan Campaign Finance Reform Bill (H.R. 3526). Although not a public financing bill, it contains a number of key provisions vital to cleaning up elections and reducing the amount of big money in politics. The legislation would ban "soft money" (the unlimited contributions from the wealthy corporations and unions), put an end to phony "issue ads" (that are designed to support or oppose a candidate while evading contribution limits), strengthen disclosure and enforcement of federal election law and encourage voluntary limitations on personal wealth spending by candidates. Moreover, the Shays-Meehan bill has a good chance of passing, provided the bipartisan coalition that forced a vote on it hangs together. The trick will be to avoid amendments that weaken the bill's reforms and jeopardize the cohesion of the coalition that backs it.

Two more bills with wide-ranging ramifications for consumers loom on the horizon in this Congress. The first is an outgrowth of Gingrich's Contract on America: S.981, the Regulatory "Improvement" Act. Sponsored by Senators Fred Thompson and Carl Levin, this bill would create numerous ways for Big Business to block federal agencies from enacting new public health, worker safety and environmental protections. New layers of red-tape and procedures, new hooks for industry and corporations to sue to block federal agency actions, and a new process for special interests to eliminate the very rules that govern them would all be standard parts of the corporate tool bag if this bill becomes law. S. 981, or the "Regulatory Roadblock Bill," has passed the Governmental Affairs Committee and may be on the floor during this Congress.

The second of these pernicious legislative efforts is a products liability deal that would restrict the legal rights of workers and consumers injured by defective and dangerous products. The legislation would cap punitive damages that could be assessed against smaller corporations, preempt stricter state liability laws, completely immunize the biomaterials industry, and restrict in many other ways the ability of injured consumers to seek compensation. Most troubling of all, President Clinton recently agreed to support these products liability limitations despite having vetoed an almost identical bill the year before and vowing never to pass legislation that contained caps on damages or preemption of state statutes. Look for the President and Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), the bill's major sponsor, to attempt to broker a deal with Republican Senator Slade Gorton (R-WA), the Republicans' point man on this issue, sometime in this Congress.

This article was prepared by Sam Munger, researcher at Public Citizen's Congress Watch. For more information, visit the Public Citizen website at, call 202-546-4996, ext. 315 or e-mail You can call your Senators and Representatives at 202-224-3121 or toll-free at 1-800-504-0031.

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