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Tobacco Use: You've Come a Long Way, Congress

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
These days, smokers are largely forced outside, even on the Capitol campus. But Congress’ long history is entwined with tobacco.

Tobacco use in Congress just isn’t what it used to be. Gone are the days of smoke-filled committee rooms and chambers. But one practice of a bygone era persists: Members can still chew — and spit — tobacco in their respective legislative bodies.

When Charles Dickens wrote about the “handsomely carpeted” chambers of the House and Senate in 1842, he gave visitors this advice: Do not look at the floor, and if you drop anything, do not pick it up “with an ungloved hand on any account.”

So prevalent was chewing tobacco — and so bad was the aim — that the condition of the carpets, Dickens wrote, “do not admit of being described.”

Regulations restricting smoking in the Capitol have steadily reduced the number of places where members can light up. The only truly safe indoor spots to smoke now are members’ offices. And you better not reside next to Rep. Keith Ellison; the Minnesota Democrat once called the authorities on Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., for smoking a cigar. Still, regulations regarding the freedom to chew and spit have been left largely intact.

You could even say the Senate encourages the practice: There are still two spittoons on the Senate floor.

While the bowl-shaped vessels haven’t seen any amber oozes since former Sen. Herman E. Talmadge, D-Ga., left the Senate in 1981, the sergeant-at-arms says a senator could spit into them any day now.

The House doesn’t have any spittoons, even though every desk once came with one, but representatives can still discharge into makeshift spitters with impunity. However, the House parliamentarian notes that the decision to allow chewing and spitting on the floor ultimately rests with the presiding chairman, and no member, as “Jefferson’s Manual” points out, is allowed “to disturb another in his speech” by spitting.

It is unclear how many times that rule has been enforced, if ever. But the rule’s existence harks back to a time when the House didn’t vote by electronic device or fill its time with one-minute speeches.

These days, it is rare to witness a member chewing tobacco while performing official congressional business. But it does happen.

The Hudson Incident

Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., recently sat through an Education and the Workforce Committee markup packing a fat lip. In between the occasional expectoration into a paper-cup-turned-spittoon, Hudson took swigs of Dr Pepper, the real, full-flavored Dr Pepper, not the diet stuff.

No one seemed to mind, or really notice. Not the panel’s chairman, John Kline, R-Minn., nor Susan W. Brooks, R-Ind., who sat beside Hudson and shared multiple conversations with him as he got his nicotine fix.

But not all members of Congress are so accepting. Upon hearing of Hudson’s markup indulgence, anti-tobacco crusader Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., said members “should not be chewing tobacco during committee hearings and markups.

“These are televised proceedings and, believe it or not, public figures can be role models,” Waxman said in a statement in response to Hudson’s spitter episode. “Members flaunting tobacco use sends the wrong message to kids.”

Hudson, for his part, said he wished Waxman and other members would “save their outrage” for the debt crisis and lower standards of living for future generations caused by “liberal tax-and-spend policies.”

It’s not the first time Waxman has taken on tobacco inside Congress.

In conjunction with the American Lung Association, Waxman once conducted an undercover tobacco sting in the Capitol complex. In 1998, two 15-year-old girls went around to various congressional vending machines and snack shops trying to buy cigarettes.

A report on the sting, “Capitol Offense: Kids Buy Cigarettes From Congress,” detailed how the minors were able to purchase Camel Lights and Marlboro Lights from the Senate, and packs of Newports, Virginia Slims and Kools at three different locations on the House side, raising questions about youth access to tobacco and whether, perhaps, the House had a thing for menthols.

Congress has long had a love affair with tobacco. Any intern worth his or her congressional badge can tell Capitol visitors of the Corinthian columns adorned in tobacco leaves. But today, Congress and tobacco’s relationship would probably be best described as, “It’s complicated.”

When Democrats seized control of the House in 2007, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., banned smoking in the Speaker’s Lobby, the ornate foyer just off the House floor that is exactly the type of place one would imagine members of Congress sitting in leather chairs, admiring fireplaces and puffing on cigars.

When Republicans took the House back in 2011, not even Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, a dedicated smoker, dared reverse the order.

It used to be different.

Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood

House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., once told Elizabeth A. Palmer for a CQ Weekly story that when he first came to Congress in 1980, he smoked a pipe everywhere. “I smoked at every Energy and Commerce subcommittee and full committee meeting I was in,” Rogers said, “and no one paid any attention.”

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, once noted that when he chaired the Labor and Human Resources Committee in the early 1980s, ranking Democrat Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., “used to smoke cigars and blow smoke in my direction,” trying to provoke the strict, non-tobacco-using Mormon. The strategy, according to Hatch, didn’t work, Palmer related.

There was also a time when the Senate actually supplied tobacco.

Senators were once able to take advantage of a replenishing supply of snuff, a tobacco product that is inhaled through the nose. To this day, the Senate keeps two snuffboxes, one for Republicans and one for Democrats.

Snuffboxes are ancient even by the Senate’s old-fashioned standards. In 1910, John Corrigan Jr. wrote in The Atlanta Constitution that the Senate snuffboxes were “reminders of those days when dandies wore knee breeches and shoes with silver buckles.”

Within the past 20 years, the snuffboxes were placed in protective cases and the tobacco was taken out. It had been decades since any senator actually took a pinch, though the supply did need to be replenished from time to time. The Senate Curator’s office theorizes that some Senate pages might have gotten a little curious.

A 1931 Baltimore Sun article notes that former Sen. Lee Slater Overman, D-N.C., (1903-1930) was the last known senator to visit the snuffbox for his fix. The article also notes that it was an old Senate adage that “a pinch of snuff clears the head of superfluous ideas.” The phrase, for whatever reason, did not stick.

The snuffboxes entered the Senate when Vice President Millard Fillmore got tired of senators, in one of the more peculiar Senate dilatory tactics, interrupting speeches to come to the snuff urn. Fillmore told Assistant Doorkeeper Isaac Bassett to ditch the urn and purchase two lacquer boxes for the snuff.

Bassett did, and the snuffboxes and the spittoons remain to this day in the chamber.

In 2009, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said that even though no senator had used the spittoons for tobacco emissions in decades, they would stay.

“I use mine to throw a few pieces of wastepaper in it,” Reid said. “It is traditional. That is the Senate.”

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