Consumer Advocate in the Senate

He had been in elective office for 50 years and, for Sen. Warren Magnuson, D-Wash., this was his last evening. He sat in his Appropriations Committee office, sipping Washington State wine with a staff member and an old friend. They were watching on a television monitor the House of Representatives’ deliberations on the continuing budget resolution before Congress adjourned the following day. A warming fire burned briskly in the fireplace.

I knocked on the door to say thank you and goodbye to the consumer champion of the U.S. Senate. For Warren Magnuson had lost his only election on Nov. 4. Comfortably ahead a week before, he was swept out by the last few days of the Carter undertow and the president’s early concession statement to Reagan before the polls in the West had closed.

“No one will ever be as powerful again in the Congress,” said an old friend. “No one will ever be in Congress that long in the first place,” he added. Magnuson did not dispute him. Given the changes in Senate and House rules, he knew that even seniority wouldn’t mean as much in the future.

“Maggie,” as everyone calls him, came to the House of Representatives in 1937, along with another freshman whose name was Lyndon Johnson. The young lawyer’s friendly personality brought him the first of many invitations to the White House. Maggie would spend several evenings playing poker at the White House with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. “Whenever the president would lose, he paid us in checks. He knew we’d never cash them,” Magnuson later recalled.

Elected to the Senate in 1944, the orphaned boy who grew up poor in Minnesota and North Dakota—before riding the freights to Seattle—gradually built his power base. And in the period 1965-1975 as chair­man of the Senate Commerce Committee, he in­troduced and shepherded through the Senate most of the major federal consumer laws that empowered the modern consumer movement.

Included in this long overdue recognition of con­sumer rights were the motor vehicle and tire safety act of 1966, the flammable fabric law, truth in lending law, child protection act, radiation control act, oil and gas pipeline safety act, a household product safety act, a strengthening of the Federal Trade Commission and stronger consumer rights against fraudulent warranties.

While the hearing record was full of telling evidence, Maggie himself was never elaborate in his explanations supporting these laws. “He looks at a dangerous toy and thinks ‘that might hurt a kid,’ ” said a staff lawyer. Still, he conveyed persuasively to many of his senatorial colleagues the need for a legal line of safety defense below which the products of an industrial society would not be allowed to fall.

This evening, Maggie was looking forward. He thought that his successor as chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Sen. Mark Hatfield, would do a good job, though he could not say as much for some of the new Republican subcommittee chairmen. “Some of these fellows have no compassion for the people at all,” he remarked. He thought that presidents spend too much of their time on foreign affairs and too little on domestic matters. Carter, he complained, would spend most of his meetings with senators at the White House talking about oversees issues.

Maggie feels that Carter’s early concession probably cost him the election. “About 35 percent of the voters in Washington vote between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m.—coming home from work. After Carter con­ceded, the vote drop-off was sharp,” he noted.

I asked him—the venerable senator, so full of anecdotes, experience and memories stretching back to the Depression days of the 30s—whether he would write his memoirs. Maggie did not commit himself on this one. But the nation surely would be wiser if he put to writing some of what he’s observed and learned in the past.

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