The next four years for the American consumer could be the best of times or the worst of times. That is basically the consensus of the Washington Congress.

About 100 business and consumer leaders -- representing organizations from AT&T to the D.C. Office of Consumer priorities and formulate action strategies at last week's two-day event, sponsored by the Direct Selling Education Foundation.

Although the conference theme was "consumer/business cooperation," consultant Ed Cohen summed up fears of many of the consumer representatives. "We're experiencing a markedly anti-consumer climate," said the former deputy to President Carter's special assistant for Consumer Affairs.

"This Congress is hearing discussion of changes in the mandate and function of agencies like the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Federal Trade Commission and the Office of Consumer Affairs. The question is to what extent will opponents of fair consumer legislation seek to exploit the existing environment?"

Said Neil Offen, president of the Direct Selling Association, "Business would be foolish if it doesn't try to work with consumers. The consumer of the 1980s will be the most sophisticated ever. So marketing techniques and other dealings should be in line with this high level of sophistication."

A major block to effective consumer/business cooperation is "lack of trust on both sides," said John Robbert of the Louisiana Consumer's League. "Consumers may feel that business exaggerates the cost of legislation, and businesses may feel that consumer groups exaggerate the benefits."

"We're much too sophisticated to think consumers and business are going to get married and live happily every after," noted Ohio State University professor Jean S. Bowers. "What's required now on both sides is honesty and respect and willingness to listen."

Participants identified and placed in order of importance 38 consumer/business priorities. Their top five concerns and strategies for putting into action:

Consumer Education: Develop criteria for consumer-education literature, geared to children at all school levels, that would be produced jointly by business and consumer groups. Establish a consumer-education resource network to share ideas and information on consumer-education activities in communities throughout the country.

Consumer Participation in Corporate Decision-Making: Establish a mechanism for interaction of consumer representatives and corporation decision-makers, possibly by placing consumer representatives on corporate boards.

Corporate Responsibility: Plan forums for consumer groups and business leaders to meet regularly for discussion of corporate responsibility to the community.

Complaint Handling: Encourage corporations to have a special department for handling consumer complaints and lobby for the implementation of consumer feedback by top decision-makers and product designers. Promote use of trade associations to arbitrate and mediate consumer complaints.

Regulation and Deregulation: Incorporate a review period into regulatory laws. Use neutral groups, like universities, to bring together consumer and business organizations to exchange ideas of prospective regulation or deregulation.