Consumers Rain Nickels on Congress

"It will cost the average American only about five cents each to create a consumer voice within federal agencies." Nader said of the proposed $15 million agency, an appropriation equal to about one hour of the Pentagon or HEW budget.

"The nickel and letter campaign is our way to get the attention--and the vote--of those wavering representatives who will decide the fate of the bill. Let big business spend millions on massive lobbying and full page, ads. Consumers will spend nickels to make their power felt," Nader argued.

"We have never gone into the districts in a systematic political way and a consumer bill is our ultimate litmus paper test issue." Green stated at the outset of the Nickel Campaign. "At this point we're beyond the merits of the bill, which are considerable but which have not proven enough. We are now working on the politics." Friday night just before the campaign was officially underway, Nader complained to Green when another member of the staff left the office at 6 p.m.

"What's so important? His social life?" Nader asked. "We are in the middle of a legislative crunch. The weekend is when you beat these guys--when the business lobby is out on the golf links."

Operating on a mere $15-20,000 budget, the Nickel Campaign set up tables at shopping centers and busy intersections across the country. They were able to make particular use of the local affiliates of the consumer coalition, such as Congress Watch's partner in advocating the legislation, the Consumer Federation of America.

Some of the groups participating in the Nickel Campaign included the AFL-CIO, Common Cause, and the United Auto Workers.


Opposition to the bill was led by the United States Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers. The Business Roundtable, Exxon, General Motors and other smaller corporations. They operated more subtly than Nader, but with a larger budget.

Arguments for and against the proposed agency center around a few key points. Opponents of the legislation say that if the consumer offices that already exist were not doing their job, then Congress has the responsibility and authority to reform them and then do a better job supervising them. passage of the ACP so that Ford would not have to exercise his threatened veto against the vociferous consumerists. Since the agency is initially budgeted for $15 million, and $25 million thereafter, Congress Watch claims the reorganization will mean an immediate savings of some $5 million per year.

Supporters of the bill also boast of Harris polls which indicate 52 per cent of the public supports a federal consumer advocacy agency. Another poll reported that when Americans were asked to "describe the ethics of people running various institutions", of the 11 institutions listed, "consumer action groups" ranked first and "major corporations" ranked tenth.

Businessmen, however, say some 600 newspaper editorials nationwide oppose the agency. This is quite a turnabout from years past and Congress is moving in the same direction. Joseph said.

By Labor Day of this year, the Consumer Nickel Brigade had managed to get nearly 43,000 voters in the 83 targeted districts to send a nickel-bearing letter to their Congressman.

"The campaign has exactly reached the goal we first announced in late June--an average of 500 'nickel-letters' per member," Green said.

Congress, however, was not to be stirred quite that easily. While Green and White House consumer affairs adviser Esther Peterson say that six targeted Congressmen have-publicly announced their support for the ACP since the Nickel Campaign began and at least six others have consented privately, both admit the effort has not quite turned Congress around in their favor. They still have some minds to change before speaker O'Neill can be persuaded that the timing is right to open the measure to floor debate. Some Congressmen were actually offended by the tactics employed by the Nickel brigadeers.

"If it has had any effect on me, it would tend to make me vote against the bill. For Common Cause to be sending out money on legislation isn't very funny," Rep. Samuel Stratton (D- N.Y.), who claims to be undecided about the proposed agency, said.

In response to that charge, Green said: "If Stratton is worried about getting bribed by a nickel, then he's easier to buy than I thought."

"I think the Nickel Campaign made a lot of people mad," Joseph said yesterday. "Otis Pike (D-N.Y.) wrote a column in The Chicago Tribune saying that the Nickel Campaign served only to demean the members of Congress.

One of the business lobby's most persuasive efforts to date was a letter to Congress from Jaworski, who serves as counsel to the Business Roundtable, that strongly denounced the ACP. He said the proposed agency had a great potential for political abuse that "could be easily turned to the advantage of those who controlled it." Jaworski warned that the agency has "practically limitless statutory authority." His letter reached congressional committee members considering the legislation after the hearings had close and just before their vote.

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