Congressional Republicans are now trying to discover whether they have any common goals (other than re‐election) following the debacle of the l998 election and the subsequent leadership contests. As part of this process, they should also consider whether they oppose any of the currently fashionable policy proposals on any basis other than the rate at which our freedoms would be restricted. A place to start would be an agreement to bury yesterday’s bad fish.
The omnibus tobacco proposal of 1998, fortunately, is dead. The anti‐smoking zealots overreached, and the tobacco companies have recently agreed to a settlement with the state attorneys general. The Clinton administration, however, is expected to propose a large increase in the federal excise tax on cigarettes to reduce teenage smoking and to fund some of its favorite programs. The relevant principle here, if anyone cares, is that excise tax rates should be no higher than the incremental cost that consumers of the product impose on other parties. And both academic and government studies find that the current federal plus state excise tax rates on cigarettes are already higher than any reasonable estimate of the cost that smokers impose on other parties. The administration’s dubious logic is that adult smokers must pay a much higher federal excise tax in order to reduce the small percentage of cigarettes (illegally) sold to teenagers. All states now ban the sale of cigarettes to teenagers and have ample authority and incentive to enforce the ban. A higher excise tax on cigarettes would be bad policy and, for the Republicans, dumb politics.