Post Mortem on the Consumer Agency’s Defeat

Cartoonist Paul Conrad pictured it well. He drew the House of Representa­tives and titled it the “Anti-Consumer Protection Agency” for its voting against a small but effective consumer represen­tation office within the federal govern­ment.

The vote — 227 to 189 against HR 9718 — reaffirmed the heightened role of busi­ness campaign contributions in buying or leasing the votes of these alleged holders of the public trust. Time and time again I was told by members and staff of the House that while they had no difficulty with the merits of the bill, they could not afford alienating the treasuries of the business world. For example, Rep. Charles Bennett, D-Fla., voted for a stronger version of the consumer bill in 1971, 1974 and 1975. Last fall he told me that while he thought well of the legislation, he did not want the Chamber of Commerce types challenging him in a primary. Bennett voted against consumers on Feb. 8.

ANOTHER REPRESENTATIVE smil­ingly said: If you can get me $100,000 font my next campaign, I’ll tell the business community in my district to go to hell.”

The almighty campaign dollar rolled through many a legislator’s office. House Speaker Tip O’Neill said he hadn’t ‘seen anything like it in 25 years. The political action committees set up by corporations and trade associations were wielding their carrot and stick behind the distor­tions spread by such lobbyists as Jess Jo­seph of the National Chamber of Com­merce.

From the grotesquely misnamed consumer affairs division of the Chamber of Commerce flowed a stream of un­truths about the legislation to business members around the country. Joseph was reduced to absurd allegations about unconstitutionality and hidden subpoena powers that were supposedly afflicting the bill. No sooner would one fallacious argument by the Chamber be rebutted than another one was raised in its suc­cessful drive to spread hysteria among its members and that of other trade as­sociations.

The forceful statements in favor of the consumer bill by more than 100 compa­nies who actually bothered to read the legislation did not come through to these trade association members.

But their fine example, led by Mont­gomery Ward’s early advocacy, points up the need for alternative organizations of businesses to represent enlightened viewpoints and provide a counterweight to the narrow-minded trade association bureaucracies in Washington who sell their members hysteria in order to puff up their own importance.

Since 1971, the consumer bill has passed the House three times and the Senate twice. Variously blocked by fili­busters in the Senate and threatened vetoes from a Republican White House, the bill seemed to be heading for adop­tion in this congressional session. But another obstacle arose — the near com­plete disintegration of the Democratic Party as a cohesive policymaking force in Congress.

I saw a 33-year-old freshman Demo­cratic congressman laugh at Tip O’Neill’s personal appeal to vote for the bill. President Carter’s calls made little or no difference as well. Nothing mattered — not a 2-1 support margin for the bill reflected in national polls, nor the explicit support of major labor, farm, consumer, elderly and neighborhood con­stituencies and state-local officials.

WHAT CAME OUT OF the House’s disgraceful performance was more than a contempt for the hard-pressed consum­ers they are supposed to represent. What emerged was another affirmation of the need for public financing of congressional campaigns.

If the Democrats do not wake up to this reform this year, many of them will be replaced by challengers riding in via the business buck.

Meanwhile, consumers who believe they are being gouged by corporate rip- offs, being harmed by hazardous drugs, autos or other products, or having their ‘ -rights disregarded in their dealings with hospitals, supermarkets, moving companies and repair services, should turn their attention to their representatives in Congress.

If they voted against the bill because they said a consumer watchdog was not needed, ask them to solve your consumer problem. Maybe that will help sensitize them to the grievances and anguish of the Americans they turned their back on Feb. 8.

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