Look at it this way: The good news is there's at least one thing about which George W. Bush is consistent. He does not believe in doing anything to hurt big business.
He especially doesn't believe in letting anyone sue business. He is opposed to a patients' bill of rights for that reason; he tried to keep the lawyers who won a $17 billion case for the state of Texas from getting their fees for that reason; and tort reform, which is another way of saying you can't sue corporations that injure or kill you or your family, is a burning passion with him.
So it should come as no surprise that the federal government has decided to settle its case against the tobacco companies. According to anti-smoking groups, in the 2000 elections the tobacco companies gave $8 million in campaign contributions, 80 percent of it to Republicans. Bush certainly knew when he appointed John Ashcroft attorney general that Ashcroft was one of the leading senators in stopping anti-smoking legislation in 1998 that would have toughened regulations and increased prices.
Administration officials have been saying they don't think they can win the case, even though one state after another has won, which means the tobacco companies go into settlement negotiations with little reason to pony up. The government was claiming $20 billion in damages for money it has spent on health care for its employees, veterans and those on Medicare with illnesses caused by smoking.
Knowingly making and marketing a poisonous, addictive product could be considered of dubious legality. I fail to see the difference between that and Murder Inc. (As one who has quit smoking many, many times, I speak with some feeling on the issue.) The idea that smokers have a "choice" about the habit seems to me a legitimate argument: I can't imagine suing a tobacco company because I was stupid enough to start smoking. But an addiction you already have is not a problem that can be solved by just saying no.
The government was suing to recover the cost to everybody else of treating smoking illnesses and would then have used much of the money to educate young people about why they shouldn't smoke. Given the amount the tobacco companies spend on marketing their poison, it makes some sense to have a counter-force out there, unless we all want to continue paying these staggering health costs, while the tobacco companies make billions.
Nothing in the world is easier to make fun of than an overreaching lawyer, but this is not a case of trial lawyers vs. big business. It's a case of our right to get recompense when we have been hurt by corporate behavior. I'm not defending lawyers -- though I know some righteous ones. Just the other day, a few Texas lawyers were found to have been keeping quiet about unsafe Firestone tires for a couple of years to guard their clients' interests, possibly costing additional lives. But the patients' bill of rights and tort reform in general are not about the rights of lawyers -- they're about our rights.
The media love to focus on outrageous verdicts, of which we have seen many over the years. What is almost never reported is the nutty verdicts are almost invariably overturned on appeal. The system of civil litigation actually works quite well -- for example, in the famous case of the 81-year-old woman who suffered third-degree burns after spilling a cup of McDonald's coffee on her lap.
The jury first awarded her $2.9 million, after learning that McDonald's had ignored 700 such complaints over the years. But the judgment was reduced to $480,000 on appeal and was later settled out of court for an undisclosed sum (she had initially sued for $200,000). And McDonald's no longer heats its coffee to a point that produces third-degree burns, thus improving the public safety.
For hilarious straight talk, I hope you did not miss Bush last week explaining that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission did not impose price caps in the West. The official administration line is that this is a "market-based mitigation plan." Herewith Bush's version: "They're not talking about firm price controls. They are talking about mechanism to -- as I understand it, a mechanism to mitigate any severe price spikes that may occur, which is completely different from price controls." Glad he understands it.