Consumers Rain Nickels on Congress

Ralph Nader really put his Washington power mystique, and possibly the future of the entire consumer movement, on the line this summer when he called the establishment of a federal agency for consumer protection the single most important consumer issue of the decade. He even threatened to personally capaign against Congressmen who he fears may cave in to big business lobbying pressure and vote against the wishes of their consuming constituents.

Nader and his 95-member consumer-labor-farmer-business coalition hope to win their 8 1/2-year battle to squeeze legislation creating an agency for consumer protection (ACP) through Congress this fall and see it signed into law by a willing President Carter. Since the bill has the backing of the administration and the Democratic party leadership in the House of Representatives, it was expected to pass easily this year. Instead, a massive lobbying effort led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has maintained enough potential "nay" votes to prevent Thomas P. O'Neill (D-Mass.), the speaker of the House, from bringing the bill to a vote.

Esther Peterson, Carter's effervescent consumer affairs adviser, said yesterday the bill's supporters may still be as many as 20 votes short in the House, according to an estimate made by longtime consumer advocate Rep. Benjamin Rosenthal (D.N.Y.).

The proposal would create a non-regulatory agency to advocate the interests of consumers before other governmental agencies, intervene in rule-making proceedings involving consumer affairs, and even take other federal agencies to court on the consumers' behalf.

The agency would also serve as a clearinghouse for significant consumer complaints and would obtain information from large businesses and federal agencies to help determine what the consumer interest is in specific issues, and when it is necessary and proper to intervene.


Big-business interests favor the kind of decisions consumer advocates claim the ACP would have fought had it been in existence, such as:

#The 1976 Federal Energy Administration's (FEA) removal of price and allocation controls from home heating oil. The FEA assured the public at the time that the price of the oil would increase by only two to three cents per gallon. After decontrol, however, the price of heating oil jumped by five to eight cents per gallon, making the added cost of this decision to American consumers more than $800 million, according to The Library of Congrvss.

#The decision of the Civil Aeronautics Board in 1974 to reject an application by Laker Airways to fly regularly-scheduled flights from New York to London for $125 each way. The board enforces regulations that prohibit most new air routes and proposed price cuts.

#The claim of Public Citizen, Nader's organization, that Interstate Commerce Commission regulations requiring trucks to return empty from delivery make mandatory and often out-of-the-way stops and which allow companies to cooperate in rate-setting, cost consumers several billion dollars yearly.

A consumer protection agency could intervene in the process by which such decisions are made, or even appeal them in the courts.

With such potentially high stakes, big business has responded with an intense and well-organized lobbying effort against the proposed consumer agency that has prompted many Congressional offices to report floods of letters, phone calls and personal visits from influential persons, including home district industrialists opposing the legislation.

As President Carter said with some dismay, "The lobbyists have come out of the woodwork."

"They have waged the most intense lobbying I have ever seen against any bill," Rosenthal said this summer. Without an effective lobbying strategy of their own, consumerists might have been unable to prevent the protection agency bill from suffering the same fate as the common situs picketing legislation backed by organized labor and killed by Congress last spring.

To prevent a similar upset, Nader approved what was for him an entirely new brand of lobbying--an old-fashioned grass-roots campaign with a new twist. Nader has spent a decade as a photogenic political entrepreneur, using the media to his best advantage as he lambasted what he saw as the many wasteful and dangerous practices of some of the world's largest and most powerful corporations. But propped up by institutions and the national media, and supported by a vague national majority. Nader has done most of his very effective lobbying along the corridors of Columbia and has felt little need to reach out to the home districts and put special pressures on specific Congressmen. But he is doing it now.

The new twist is what Nader refers to as "metallic irony." The consumer coalition last June 30 launched a genuine grass-roots campaign which targeted some 83 Congressional district. The goal was to get thousands of consumers "to shower Congress with nickels and letters" in support of legislation to create an agency for consumer protection. The drive is the brainchild of Congress Watch, a collection of eight lawyers who operate as Public Citizen's lobbying arm on Capital Hill, and of its director, Mark Green.

"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.

In a case reply to the man who would soon take over the Korean bribery inquiries in the House, Nader said. "It's intellectually shoddy, if not disgraceful to his presumed stature in the legal profession to let the business people use his reputation without exposing him to cross-examination. He got the benefit without being there to testify." Jaworski refused to say wh the Business Roundtable paid him to write the letter.

It took some morning-of-the-vote wake-up calls to Democrats by Vice President Walter F. Mondale to all save the ACP in the House Government Operations Committee, where it was reported out 1st May by a vote of 22 to 21.

"Business is accused of doing anything money can buy, but it can't buy the power of the Oval Office," Joseph said. "Some members told Mondale they would vote yes as a favor to the party, to allow a debate, but that they would not vote for it on the floor," he added.

The House leadership has already agreed with Senate majority leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.) that the House should debate the bill first, since Senate confirmation is likely despite an inevitable filibuster by Sen. James B. Allen (D-Ala.). The big issue now, Green says, is when Speaker O'Neill, in conference with the White House, will schedule floor debate and votes.

Green says the Nader organization's unprecedented grassroots campaign is not only a crucial test for the future of the consumer movement, but also "a harbinger of things to come for Public Citizen."

"We will be redefining our thinking on grass roots organizing. We have to get out more to the districts to have greater impact in Congress--this is a real trail blazer for us," he said.

Green said that the importance of the Nickel Campaign for the consumer movement extends beyond even this great issue because "if a member knows that we have the ability and the impact and the following to affect the outcome of his next election, then he will be more responsive to our point of view."

From this perspective, the lobbying battle could be said to affect directly the outcome of other proposed and pending consumer legislation, such as air bags for automobiles, a federal consumer bank, and a bill called Public Participation that would appropriate some $10 million to be awarded as compensation to consumer groups, individuals and local governments testifying at congressional hearings where special-interest groups are already well-represented. Peterson said yesterday.

Despite optimism on the consumer side, the business lobby does not concede that the Nickel Campaign cut down the early advantage they built up by inspiring an early flood of mail opposing the ACP.

"We feel like we're in the fifth quarter of a football game with the score 21-14 in our favor, but nobody blew the whistle yet." McKevitt said.

Although everyone seems to agree that Ralph Nader will stick around Washington even if he loses this battle, big-business is hoping that if they can defeat the consumer coalition here. Nader will see his public support and media exposure evaporate--possibly even ending this current wave of consumer activism in America.

The jury is out.

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