South and Consumers

Why do southern senators vote so consistently against the interests of American consumers and for the objectives of corporate lobbyists?

Certainly consumers in the south have the same grievances as consumers in the north or other sections of the country. Southern consumers often buy cars that are lemons, receive worthless merchandise, and suffer from price gouging and shoddy goods and services. Consumer products are not safe in the South when they are unsafe elsewhere. Nor are interest rates lower in Atlanta than they are in Indianapolis.

Yet during the current session of Congress, for example, the consumer voting records of southern senators are deplorably poor, with the exceptions of Senators Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) and Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.).

According to the Consumer Federation of America’s (CFA) recent consumer ratings, Senators John Sparkman (D-Ala.), Jesse A. Helms (R-N.C.), Dewey F. Bartlett (R-Okla.), Henry Bellmon (R-Okla.), William Brock (R-Tenn.),and William L. Scott (R-Va.) scored zero on ten consumer interest votes. Other southern senators were not far behind.

In the struggle to end the Senate filibuster against the important consumer advocacy bill (S. 707), only Senators Hollings, Chiles, and Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.) voted to end the obstructionist tactics of Senators James B. Allen (D-Ala.) and Sam J. Ervin, Jr. (D-N.C.). On the fourth cloture vote, 17 out of 19 Deep South senators supported the filibuster to block a widely backed consumer advocacy bill designed to provide an effective, professional voice for consumers before federal departments and agencies making decisions about prices, health and safety too often along the lines of what Proctor & Gamble, Exxon or other corporations demand. This southern bloc sustained the filibuster on four Senate floor votes in the last two months.

Some reasons may be suggested for this anti-consumer posture of most southern senators. First, with few exceptions, they have little effective opposition at the polls. There is nothing like viable multi-candidate competition to raise issues that focus on the public
interest. Without such competition, a senator like Russell Long, who is running for re-election this year without any real opposition, can take consumers of Louisiana for granted, and his zero CFA rating indicates that he has done just that.

Second, regular press reporting to the home states from Washington about the doings of these senators is not as prevalent as is the case with many other parts of the country. Detailed Washington reporting about members of Congress is not good anywhere but it is, by and large, least available about southern congressional delegations. This is so, even though the seniority system has led to a long domination of key committee chairmanships by southerners.

Some southern newspapers such as the Atlanta Constitution, the Nashville Tennessean, and the Birmingham Post-Herald are recognizing that the information needs of their readers are not quite met by the smooth public relations of congressional offices with their newsletters and radio tapes. Each of these newspapers has an active, full-time staff in Washingtonto cover their respective state delegations, and the Atlanta Constitution recently expanded the size of its Washington staff.

Another characteristic of the lopsided senatorial antipathy to consumer problems in the South is that these senators have rarely conducted or sat in on the various Senate Committee hearings documenting consumer abuses. Unlike a Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.), who spent days holding hearings on drug price gouges and unsafe drug products, or Senator Vance Hartke (D-Ind.) who logged many hours of committee hearings on the auto industry’s callousness, southern senators are infrequently in attendance.

The absence of strong labor unions or consumer groups in parts of the South also accounts for the indentured status of many of these senators to industry and commerce. For example, Senator Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) told me that he had no real objection to the consumer advocacy bill but that he was voting against it because bankers and other companies were against it. He conceded that if there were a plebiscite of allTennesseans on this bill, the overwhelming majority would probably favor it. But his vocal constituency was not several million Tennessee consumers but a handful of vociferous businessmen.

It is this susceptibility that keeps men like Al Bourland of General Motors and Wayne Smithey of Ford Motor Company prowling the halls of Congress on missions their companies advertisements would rather not mention.

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