Where is Mrs. Baranowski when we need her?

Remember Mrs. Baranowski? She's the one in the fabric softener commercial who practically cried, in a session recorded by a hidden camera, when they told her they were taking the whitener out of their product.

It turned out to be a cruel ruse, of course. They weren't really doing that to Mrs. Baranowski at all, they just wanted to get her reaction on film.

But oh, how the D.C. City Council could use her expertise now. In her absence, the soap and detergent industry has designed its own "consumer study" in hopes of finding that people just won't be able to get their whites whiter and their brights brighter without phosphates in their detergents.

The issue arises because the city council's public works committee was getting ready to vote on a bill that would ban the sale and use of most cleaning agents containing phosphates. The committee estimates that the city would save between $1.5 million and $2 million a year by not having to remove phosphorus from waste water.

In Washington, as in Maryland last year, the bill has pitted the detergent industry against environmentalists. The industry says that phosphates make clothes whiter and cleaner while environmentalists say phosphates only dirty the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay and accelerate algae growth in the waterways.

But in hopes of getting the backing of the Baranowskis of the world, the detergent industry has constructed an elaborate test to be conducted by a battalion of laundry-laden consumers meeting on neutral territory -- the city's laundromats.

These consumers will be met at some neighborhood laudromats by home economists who will offer them a soiled garment split down the middle. One half of the garment will be put into laundry washed with phosphate detergent and the other half with nonphosphate detergent.

Of course, the industry is not an unbiased outside observer and already there are whispers by the inevitable naysayers of ways the results could be skewed. Could one side of the garment be grimier than the other? Who is going to decide what is dingy and what is not? Who is going to make sure one load doesn't consist of a 12-year-old's tattered chinos from last week's football game and the other of Aunt Agatha's crisp new blouses?

The strain of the tests could break up marriages. Just remember what the industry told us in another detergent commercial -- the look of contempt the businessman always threw at his wife when some eagle-eyed coworker noticed that the man's collar was caked with grime.

If District consumers start comparing their wash in public places, who knows what kind of altercations could ensue?

But the council committee decided to go along with this study, postponing any decision on the phosphate ban for two weeks.

If it all works out, the idea might catch on in other areas where the city council could have interested industries design consumer surveys when policy decisions are being made.

They could have the liquor industry do a study of whether 18-to-20-year-olds should be allowed to drink alcohol, for example.

The insurance companies probably would be willing to interview customers on whether they want higher or lower insurance rates and use the results in their lobbying for no-fault insurance.

And in preparation for next month's reconsideration of interstate banking issues, the local banks could be given an opportunity to give consumers bargain-basement deals on home loans for a few weeks and gauge their reactions.

The soap industry says it will take a month to complete its study and compile its findings, which are sure to be a great, big surprise.

In the meantime, one of the more curious aspects of the debate is that the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs had no problem with the bill at earlier hearings, but then turned around and asked the public works committee to postpone action on the measure until the industry study could be done. Department officials have not explained why they changed their stand.

But eventually, as Mrs. Baranowski might say, it will all come out in the wash.