It's rating time. Thanks to political activists in Washington, voters around the country are able to find out how their senators and congressmen voted in the 97th Congress on issues that are dear to their hearts and pocketbooks.
Among the groups that have issued ratings are the American Association of University Women and the National Women's Political Caucus. This week, six public interest groups, including Congress Watch, the Consumer Federation of America, and the National Council of Senior Citizens, issued a report on how members of Congress reacted to five special interest bills that hurt consumers.
These bills, according to the report, are "tailor-made to give special privileges to small segments of society. Such bills are as likely to be opposed by the Reagan administration as by Democrats."
They are: a resolution to kill the Federal Trade Commission requirement that used-car dealers inform consumers of known defects in the cars; a bill curtailing FTC jurisdiction over business practices of high-income professionals such as doctors; a bill legalizing territorial monopolies in beer distribution; a "bankers' bill" requiring people, but not businesses, to pay back their debts even after declaring bankruptcy; a bill allowing drug companies to keep their patents for up to 24 years, which reduces competition from generic drugs and hits the elderly particularly hard.
All of these bills were accompanied by lavish political action committee donations from the industries that stood to benefit. The used-car resolution -- whose chief backer, the National Automobile Dealers Association, gave $742,371 to congressmen voting its way -- has passed Congress. The other measures are expected to come up in the lame-duck session.
Here is how the local representatives who are running in this election have reacted to these bills: Frank Wolf (R-Va.) supports four of the five; Stan Parris (R-Va.) supports four of the five and was not present for the used-car bill vote; Paul Trible (R-Va.), who is running for the Senate, supports all five.
Of the Maryland Democrats, Sen. Paul Sarbanes supports only the beer bill. Michael Barnes supports only the bankers' bill. Steny Hoyer supports three of the bills, Beverly Byron and Roy Dyson support four of them. Barbara Mikulski and Parren Mitchell have supported none. Republican Marjorie Holt supports all five.
The AAUW selected 11 Senate votes and nine House votes that reflect the AAUW's support for the National Endowment for the Arts, Medicaid funding of abortions, food stamps, child nutrition, foreign aid, student loans, the legal services corporation, the Voting Rights Act, and restoration of the Social Security minimum benefits. The AAUW did not support the Reagan administration's budget because of its deep cuts in numerous programs affecting women, and it opposes the land-based MX missile system. Three votes on these issues were also counted.
The NWPC rated the Senate on 15 votes, including several controversial nominations, and the House on 11 votes, including three Reagan budget votes, a vote curtailing abortion funding for federal employes, the Social Security minimum benefit vote, two sexual rights bills and two voting rights extension bills.
Frank Wolf topped the Virginia delegation with a 44 rating from the AAUW and a 27 rating from the NWPC. Parris got 33 from AAUW, Trible got 22; while both received 9 from the NWPC. In Maryland, Sarbanes, Mikulski, Barnes, Hoyer and Mitchell received 100 from both groups. The two lowest ratings in the Maryland delegation went to women legislators: Holt got 22 from the AAUW and 36 from the NWPC, while Byron got 44 from the AAUW and 27 from the NWPC. Dyson got 56 from the AAUW and 45 from the NWPC.
Rating groups reflect the interests of their constituency. They are nevertheless useful measures of a candidate's performance and his or her commitment to constituent interests versus special interests. In a time when political action committees are pouring millions of dollars into congressional elections, when voters are being barraged by television ads selling candidates the way they used to sell cigarettes, it is well worthwhile for voters to go to the organizations that represent their interests and find out how their candidate is rated. The system isn't perfect, but it will be far more revealing about a candidate's record than PAC-paid ads.