June 11, 2003
Your daily dose of melodrama

You may have already seen this at Atrios, but on the odd chance that you haven't yet read this article about some shenanigans by House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Missouri), well, let's let it speak for itself:

Only hours after Rep. Roy Blunt was named to the House's third-highest leadership job in November, he surprised his fellow top Republicans by trying to quietly insert a provision benefiting Philip Morris USA into the 475-page bill creating a Department of Homeland Security, according to several people familiar with the effort.

The new majority whip, who has close personal and political ties to the company, instructed congressional aides to add the tobacco provision to the bill -- then within hours of a final House vote -- even though no one else in leadership supported it or knew he was trying to squeeze it in.

Once alerted to the provision, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert's chief of staff, Scott Palmer, quickly had it pulled out, said a senior GOP leader who requested anonymity. Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) also opposed what Blunt (Mo.) was trying to do, the member said, and "worked against it" when he learned of it.

The provision would have made it harder to sell tobacco products over the Internet and would have cracked down on the sale of contraband cigarettes, two practices that cut into Philip Morris's profits. Blunt has received large campaign donations from Philip Morris, his son works for the company in Missouri and the House member has a close personal relationship with a Washington lobbyist for the firm.

It is highly unusual for a House Republican to insert a last-minute contentious provision that has never gone through a committee, never faced a House vote and never been approved by the speaker or majority leader. Blunt's attempt became known only to a small circle of House and White House officials. They kept it quiet, preferring no publicity on a matter involving favors for the nation's biggest tobacco company and possible claims of conflicts of interest.

If that weren't enough, his son is a lobbyist for Philip Morris and has been the beneficiary of this kind of paternal largesse before on behalf of another client. Plus, Rep. Blunt is apparently involved (in some unspecified fashion) with a female lobbyist for Philip Morris. This plotline would've been rejected as excessively cheesy by the writers of Designing Women, and yet here we are. Have I ever mentioned that this is turning out to be a really strange decade?

Making this story even more fun are the justifications Blunt gives for his remarkable actions. First, the one-size-fits-all reason:

Blunt said he pushed the provision because he thought it was good policy, much of it drawn from legislation introduced last year by then-Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R-Ark.). Sens. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) and Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) recently introduced legislation that would do much of what Philip Morris was seeking to do, Blunt said. He said the provision was relevant to the homeland security bill because news reports last year showed that terrorist groups, such as the Lebanon-based Hezbollah, were profiting from the sale of contraband cigarettes.

Lining one's pockets in the name of anti-terrorism is no vice, right?

Blunt said his actions were no different than those of a member who successfully tucked a provision providing liability protections to the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical company into the same homeland security bill.

I can't believe he even trotted that one out. That provision raised a huge stink and as the article notes, no Republican has ever come forward to claim it. Dwight and Mary Beth were all over this. This is like justifying a puffed-up expense account by noting that lots of people steal office supplies.

Thanks to my indefatigable tipster Alfredo Garcia for sending me the link.

UPDATE: TNR did some digging, and concluded that Blunt's attempt to slip this provision into a bill may have had some merit.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on June 11, 2003 to Scandalized! | TrackBack

Hmmm... I was a fan of Roy Blunt ages ago when I lived in SW Missouri. Sad to see this.

Posted by: Kevin Whited on June 12, 2003 7:53 AM

In the interest of full disclosure, I own 10 shares of Altria.

This a variant of the it's not the crime it's the cover-up.

While the bill is fishy given all the ties Blount has to Phillip Morris/Altria, there appears to be some merit to some of the legislation.

But by going about it the way he did, he doomed his bill. Smooth move, Roy. If he had been above board who knows what would have happened?

Imagine the debate on the bill and the lost campaign material for the Dems.

Posted by: Patrick on June 12, 2003 11:07 AM