Spokesmen for the business community see it differently, but the defeat of an eight-year-old proposal for a federal consumer office may turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory.
The excessive cost comes in two parts. There is the matter of overkill and the possibility that the defeat of a weak bill may lead to eventual passage of a stronger one.
The other factor is one that business has been concerned with for some time - public image. As the record stands at the moment, American business and industry appears to be opposed to any concept of a federal consumer office.
This is a question that leaders of big and small business will be wrestling with over the next two months, as they regroup for the next assault by consumers in the second session of the 95th Congress, starting in January.
Despite extensive lobbying that included messages from the White House, Democratic leaders in the HOuse conceded this week that a revamped bill to establish an Office of Consumer Representation probably could not now pass.
Rather than risk defeat, White House consumer adviser Esther Peterson (D-N.Y.), chief sponsor of the legislation, withdrew to the sidelines. They said they were short of a "sure" majority by about 15 votes.
To Jeffrey H. Joseph, director of government and consumer affairs for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, it was just "the next logical step in the history of a bill going steadily down hill . . . times have changed since it was first proposed."
Members of Congress have heard the message, "a deafening silence from grass roots America which has lost confidence in consumerism as practiced 10 years ago," he adds. "The idea that a single agency in Washington can solve the problems of more than 200 million consumers should be buried forever."
Joseph states emphatically that business won't get a "black eye" from its stand against "another federal agency in the Washington bureaucracy."
But Joseph could be overstating the case and there is some evidence that business itself is developing a split personality on the issue.
For one thing, consumer advocates managed to get grass roots Americans to send some 40,000 nickels to their congressmen in recent months one per constituent - as part of their campaign to demonstrate support. That's not a "deafening silence."
In addition, three major Washington retailers have broken ranks with the so-called "Big Business" opposition. Drug Fair, Inc., a recent convert, and Giant Food, Inc., long identified with consumer issues, have backed the revised consumer representation agency in full-page newspaper advertisements. And hardware executive John Hechinger is heading an organization of business supporters.
What do Washington businessmen know about consumerism that others don't? In short, they believe it is inevitable. States the ad by Giant Food, where Peterson formerly was consumer adviser between White House stints: "We feel this new bill provides a better balance between consumer, industry and government interests."
That balancing of interests, which Peterson emphasized in an interview, would be accomplished by a relatively small office (200 or so) that would pick and choose from the thousands of cases before federal agencies those isseus where a decision is made that consumers need a voice - such as American Telephone & Telegraph rate cases at the Federal Communiccations Commission.
Although Peterson said recent changes in the House legislation reduced the proposed office's powers, the Chamber of Commerce contends they were cosmetic changes only, that the agency still would have too much power to demand information of business - if not on its own, through agencies where specific cases were being heard.
Peterson argues that the Chamber and other trade associations here areguilty of distorting the legislation. "They are very powerful . . . and have a very negative influence . . . making peer pressure from which it is hard for businesses to breakaway."
But break away they will, she forecast, emphasizing her view that the House legislation would not set up just another Washington agency but rather an office that would represent consumers before already established agencies.
"It's a distortion of the democratic process" to deny consumers such a voice, she argued. "We're going to go into areas where we can make a difference."
In Peterson's view, the Chamber of Commerce is "losing credibility" by belittling attempts at a compromise bill. She expressed confidence that both houses of Congress will pass legislation to establish the office next year. So stay tuned.