WASHINGTON — That inveterate opponent of consumer rights, the US Chamber of Commerce, is now trying to disown the role its staff took in putting together an unlabeled propaganda kit on how to defeat the consumer protection bill which is before Congress. The kit was sent to mislead hundreds of business and trade associations around the country, thereby spurring them to action.
The real story is quite the opposite of what the Chamber is asserting. For over two years, the Chamber has fought the establishment of a small consumer protection office to represent consumer interests before other federal regulatory agencies. These agencies are supposed to protect the consumer’s income, health and safety (in matters ranging from utility rates to food, drug and auto safety) from corporate gouging and negligence. But they are surrounded by corporate lobbyists and lawyers who have often decisive influence over them. The proposed consumer protection office would have consumer lawyers, scientists, engineers and economists advocate the ordinary person’s interest so that government performs more justly and efficiently.
Operating on two levels — one open and the other secret — the Chamber swung into action last year. With amiable Kenneth Stinger, now head of its consumer affairs committee, the Chamber formally dispatched materials to state chambers of commerce and allied groups. These materials opposed the bill with strong but not profane language and urged ways to influnece key senators and representatives. So deceptive were the descriptions, however, that Republican Senator Charles Percy denounced the Chamber for unleashing such a “blunderbuss blast.”
In the meantime, the Chamber’s staff was working with its brother lobbyist and cohort, the Grocery Manufacturers of America, to anonymously spread hysteria and misinformation about the bill so as to generate a storm of protests from industry and commerce. The GMA is a major, long-time member of the Chamber of Commerce complex and the two staffs regularly go after consumer bills and policies with the synchronized ferocity of the upper and lower jaws of a wild beast. In this case, the Chamber kept a low profile, as it had been advised to do by its public relations firm, Hill and Knowlton.
Inquiring reporters early in March tried to find out who was responsible for these unmarked kits wildly calling a bill which was backed by 74 Republican and Democratic senators “the most serious threat to free enterprise and orderly government ever to be proposed in Congress.” The Chamber finally denied it was a Chamber publication and the GMA avoided any reply.
At last, in response to a letter by Senator Percy’s legal aide, the GMA admitted its involvement and thereby became the Chamber’s “heavy.” At the same time that the Chamber was struggling to wiggle out of association with the intemperately written kit, none of whose contents its disagrees with in the slightest, it was helping arrange a strategy meeting of well dressed corporate lobbyists at the Madison Hotel in Washington, D. C.
Right after this secret gathering of April 14, the Chamber denied knowing anything about it but then quickly reversed itself and admitted its presence there. The meeting’s purpose was to develop pressure and amendments to defeat or seriously weaken the bill. Apparently, the Chamber tries to take advantage of its sprawling private bureaucracy by not officially recognizing what some of its staff people do behind the scenes.
Contrary to what the Chamber spreads through falsehood and distortions, the proposed consumer protection agency has no prosecutorial or regulatory power whatsoever. It must abide by the rules of the regulatory agencies before which it appears to advocate the consumers’ interests. The proposed budget for the agency in Senate bill 1177, starts with $7.5 million during the startup year and goes to a level of $25 million in the third year. (The House-passed bill has even lower figures.) What the Chamber describes as a huge budget amounts in the first year to about 3 percent of the annual advertising budget of Procter and Gamble, whose lobbyist, Bryce Harlow, a former aide to President Nixon, is one of the masterminds against many consumer bills.
This tiny budget to help millions of American consumers get a better, safer deal and save billions of dollars in the marketplace, the Chamber cannot tolerate. Consistently, however, the Chamber supports the billions in government subsidies and tax breaks for its member companies. Clearly, consumers need to send a message to the Chamber.