“The central question is: Who owns this House?” These words were spoken by a veteran member of the House of Representatives at a recent meeting with Speaker Tip 0′-Neill and a large number of consumer, elderly, union and community groups gathered, to support the upcoming consumer protection legislation.
The House vote this month will bring to a climax a political drama in many acts. But the overreaching contest is between the power of business money and the right of consumers to have a small, expert office advocating their interests before federal agencies and the courts.
In the past eight years, large corporations like Sears and General Motors have joined with dozens of trade associations like the Business Roundtable and the National Chamber of Commerce in pouring millions of dollars to block this tiny Office of Consumer Representation.
Men like Emmett Hones of Armstrong Cork and Bryce Harlow of Proctor and Gamble focus enormous lobbying efforts against this flagship legislation for consumer justice.
Letters, mailgrams, bulletins and newsletters stream out of Washington trade association offices to their members around the country distorting the consumer bill’s provisions. Outraged, the misinformed members rail at their congressional representatives. Imagine the presumption of Congress giving consumer health, safety and economic rights an effective advocate in the nation’s capital.
ON CAPITOL HILL, the political dynamics are intensifying. More than on most issues, the consumer bill has become a rallying point for the House Democratic leadership.
Speaker O’Neill and Majority leader James Wright of Texas know they lave to show some concrete achievement for consumers — the people who pay all the bills. And, the bills have been getting heavier to shoulder in such areas as energy, utilities, health care, food and repair services.
Not only has this same Congress passed legislation for special interest groups that has raised consumer prices (the latest exam-pie will be a $600-million rise in sugar prices yearly), but it has tolerated a severe imbalance between business greed and consumer rights within federal agencies and departments.
On the other hand, the Republicans seem to want to unify their House forces against this consumer bill. With the exception of a handful of sensitive Republicans, led by Rep. Frank Horton of New York, the GOP is doing everything it can to earn the anti-consumer sobriquet for the November elections. Cold blooded solons such as Rep. John Erlenborn of Illinois need to listen to the anguished cries of Americans who have suffered the results of industry-agency inactivity that over the years have left dangerous drugs and market frauds unperturbed.
HERE IS A PROPOSED consumer advocacy office that asks for no subsidies, has no authority to regulate and spends in one year what the Department of Commerce — one of several agencies promoting business — spends in three days. All it can do is challenge the oil industry, for example, when federal agencies accept uncritically the demands for higher gasoline, natural gas or home heating fuel prices. Why, a successful argument by the consumer office that lessens the price increase of non-leaded gasoline by one cent per gallon will save consumers $300 million a year.
All the tired slogans that the big business lobby has used against the consumer office legislation have worn thin. In addition, modifications in the bill recently have focused on the rights of farmers, as consumers of supplies, and small business as consumers and competitors in their own right. The bill will help in concrete ways both farmers and small business.
What remains is a classic struggle between conscience and power. The three or four dozen members of the House who represent the swing votes on this bill (H.R. 9718) soon will have to decide whether to succumb to the truly awesome business lobby or rise to the rightful claims of the people in their districts. Whichever way they go, the consumer movement will not soon forget whether they stood tall when it counted.