Since the death of the consumer agency bill last month in Congress, consumer advocates, congressional staffers and White House consumer officer staffers have been drawing their wagons into a circle for the next fight.
The new battle will be held on behalf of S-270, the public participation bill that would authorize federal agencies to provide funds to consumer interest groups to finance their participation in agency proceedings.
"Consumers are effectively shut out of agency actions, according to the Senate's own Government Affairs Committee," said Congresswatch's Mark Green. "Since Congress voted against an agency solution to this underreprentation, it should now vote for a non-agency solution."
Green said, "Right now the federal government operationally subsidizes business interests in their representation with hundreds of millions of dollars in tax deductible legal fees to make their arguments - the least it can do is appropriate $10 million for consumer representation."
Green says another advantage of S-270 is that it is a "nonbureaucratic solution" to the problem. One of the major objections to the consumer agency bill was that it would create still another government agency at a time when nearly everyone agrees that the government needs more consolidation.
Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) is preparing the Judiciary Committee, which bottled up the bill last summer with an 8-8 vote every time it came up, to look at S-270 one more time.
The addition of Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.) to the committee to replace the late Sen. John L. McClellan (D-Ark.), who had led the opposition, has given supporters what they hope is the extra vote to break the deadlock.
Several agencies, on their own initiative, have created consumer office to fund some public participation, including the Federal Trade Commission, Environmenal Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
And one innovative proposal before the CPSC would have chain saw industry representatives, seeking to develop voluntary instead of mandatory safety standard, underwrite consumer representation at CPSC hearings.
"It it meaningless to talk of effective citizen involvement in government unless citizens have some means of competing with special interests on an equal basis," said Sen. Kennedy last August, when the Senate Judiciary Committee failed to report the bill by an 8-8 vote.
"We must establish a mechanism to insure that public view-points are expressed with equal technical and legal competence as those of business and industry," Kennedy continued.
"Participation in federal agency proceedings is costly, and right now all the resources are on one side. A way must be found to restore some balance to the regulatory process," he added.
The bill puts a $10 million ceiling on a appropriations for each of the first three fiscal years of the experimental program. The legislation is modeled after the FTC compensation program which was established by the Magnuson-Moss Act of 1975.
To qualify for funding under S-270, a potential participant must contribute to "a fair balance" of opinion before the commission involved. That criteria was expanded considerably from the FTC statute, which requires a participant to "represent an interest not otherwise represented in the proceedings."
A fact sheet distributed by Kennedy's office with copies of the bill states that "The Judiciary Committee determined the primary purpose of S-270 is to provide funds for diverse and unrepresented viewpoints, and not merely to get outside participants to do unique factual research for the agency."