Republicans bring back smoke-filled rooms on Capitol Hill


There’s a lot of history repeating itself in Congress this year — the House is in GOP hands, Democrats control the White House and Senate and there’s an inescapable stench of tobacco smoke in the Capitol’s hallways.

The smoke evokes memories of the old guard of Republican House leadership. Former House Speaker John Boehner smoked so many cigarettes that new carpets, a fresh coat of paint and an ozone machine were required when Paul Ryan took over his office.

Going further back, David Dreier, a GOP chairman of the House Rules Committee in the late 1990s and early 2000s, was fond of cigars. Today it’s another Rules chairman — Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma — who can often be found smoking in the committee’s space on the third floor of the Capitol.

This makes the US Capitol one of a handful of places in Washington, DC, and among the few remaining office buildings in the country where smoking is still allowed inside. Despite efforts going back more than 150 years to prohibit tobacco from the building, smoking is still allowed in members’ offices.

The Capitol, and the surrounding congressional office buildings, are federal property but operate independently of other government buildings and many rules — including those about smoking and pandemic procedures — are at the discretion of House and Senate leadership.

Former President Bill Clinton signed an executive order in 1997 restricting smoking in federal buildings. A decade later, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi banned smoking from much of the Capitol complex in 2007, when Democrats were in control, though individual members could still permit it in their office space.

The first attempt to curtail smoking was in 1871, under then-Speaker James G. Blaine of Maine, who initiated a ban in the galleries and on the House floor while in legislative session. In 1914, the Senate agreed to eliminate smoking in its chamber.

The District of Columbia banned smoking in most public places in 2006 and 28 states have what the American Lung Association calls comprehensive smoke-free laws that prohibit smoking in most places, including restaurants and bars.

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