That is excellent news for John A. Boehner of Ohio, the new Republican majority leader, who regularly smokes cigarettes between votes in the House. And for Barney Frank, the Massachusetts Democrat, who sits and smokes cigars while reading the newspaper in the speaker's lobby. And for Sherwood Boehlert, the New York Republican, who is struggling to quit but can be seen inhaling in weaker moments during the workday.
Because while the rest of the country has turned against smoking with great zeal, Congress has stubbornly some would say proudly refused to bend.
Smoking is still allowed in numerous indoor spaces in the Capitol, most noticeably in the gilded reception area where lawmakers crowd together during the long yeas and nays. Standing ashtrays, usually partly filled with cigar and cigarette butts, are strategically placed in the corridors. In a time when the "smoke-filled room" is more metaphor than fixture, its literal incarnation in Congress can seem almost quaint.
Members are uncharacteristically shy about discussing their smoking habits in a public domain where smoking is supposedly taboo. Not one smoker-lawmaker contacted for this article returned the call. Photographs of lawmakers smoking are virtually impossible to come by (as the blog Wonkette discovered last week when it put out a public call for photographs of Mr. Boehner smoking).
Yet in private, some lawmakers have shown little desire to tamp down the addiction. In some corners, the right to smoke in Congress is seen as a last stand against political correctness, a bulwark against the antismoking fervor that swept the political universe during the Clinton years. (The Clintons famously banned smoking from the White House, reportedly to the annoyance of smokers from the other party who had to attend long meetings there.)
"What will happen is someone will come along and ruin this last bit of fun," said Christopher Buckley, whose satiric novel, "Thank You for Smoking," has been made into a movie.
"As sure as night will follow day, now some aging senator or Congressional page will come down with lung cancer and sue the United States government because of this very room," Mr. Buckley said. "And that last bit of fun will be foreclosed."
Except it's not the last, as it turns out. Against a tide of frantic smoking-ban legislation from coast to coast, the industry has fought to keep smoking permissible everywhere, succeeding mostly in casinos and airport lounges, particularly in the South, and the like. Gambling interests even have their own smoking lobby, and some of the airport lounges were paid for by Philip Morris. Some factory assembly lines, including those at General Motors, allow workers to smoke on the job, partly because of old agreements with labor unions that wanted to keep workers comfortable. Newer union agreements have focused on worker health, and are beginning to phase smoking out.
And even in states that ban smoking altogether in public places, there have been tobacco tussles around statehouses, which are mostly subject to the lawmakers and not the laws. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California put up a tent outside the smokefree capitol in Sacramento so he could conduct business over cigars.
In Mr. Buckley's novel, the protagonist is a publicist for the tobacco industry who nicknames friends in the alcohol and firearms industries merchants of death. Antismoking advocates are all too willing to attribute the tobacco zone in Washington to similarly sinister forces, arguing that the Republican leadership is in the pocket of tobacco behemoths.
Cigarette companies, after all, have poured more than $55 million into campaigns over the last 15 or so years. Representative Tom DeLay, Republican of Texas and the former majority leader, borrowed the corporate planes of R.J. Reynolds at least nine times in the last seven years. One of Mr. Boehner's most famous acts handing out checks to lawmaker colleagues on the House floor in 1995 involved donations from tobacco lobbyists.
But if the tobacco lobby was at work in keeping Congress a nicotine refuge, it probably could have saved itself the trouble. A confluence of more potent cultural and demographic forces seems to be at play on Capitol Hill, with lawmakers indulging in a familiar hubris.
"Congress generally has rules for us and rules for them, and the rules for them are very often more pleasant than the rules for us," Mr. Buckley said.
"They exist on their own island," said Vincent Morris, a spokesman for the district's mayor, Anthony A. Williams, who declined to veto the new city council ban on smoking in restaurants and bars. "We would not be able to enforce the smoking ban in the speaker's lobby," Mr. Morris said, referring to the reception area. The Congress, he said, "is kind of old school in that sense."
Representative Henry A. Waxman, Democrat of California, a nonsmoker who has written letters urging the House leadership to revise the internal rules, said, "I think some Republicans in the leadership smoke and feel they have a right to smoke wherever they want to smoke."
"If I want to sit in the speaker's lobby outside the House chambers I have to breathe in tobacco smoke, from cigarettes and cigars," Mr. Waxman said. "And it's sometimes unbearable."
But Washington's antismoking advocates seem resigned. "We recognize Congress does what it wants and has always done what it wants," said Angela Bradbery, a founder of Smokefree DC. "We don't have the capacity to do anything about it. And we're not going to try to get them to change their ways."
Comment: In what is perhaps yet another indication that certain senior political leaders know more than they are letting on regarding the fate awaiting the rest of the world, Congress has exempted itself from the citywide DC smoking ban recently enacted.
Thanks to Signs Forum Member, John, for this one!