If an observer knew all the players, the scene that unfolded recently in a House subcommittee hearing was unsettling.

Rep. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.) needed an answer to a tough question about the bill he sponsored to standardize the way state courts decide product liability lawsuits.

In those dreaded moments, a lawmaker often turns to those who authored the bill for an explanation. Richardson turned to Victor Schwartz, the attorney for an alliance of industry groups that would be sitting pretty if Richardson's bill is passed. A congressional aide shuffled Schwartz's answer back to Richardson.

To the representatives of consumer groups sitting in the commerce, consumer protection and competitiveness subcommittee hearing, the scenario was just one more bit of evidence that leaves them feeling like the odd man out in the debate over a bill that could make it tougher for victims to sue the makers of defective products.

Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee where the bill got its start, has held the door to negotiations wide for big business, while slamming it shut in the faces of committee members who want to temper it. That is uncharacteristic for Dingell, who has a reputation for cutting big business down to size.

Every consumer group our associate Stewart Harris contacted told us they were excluded from negotiations over the Uniform Product Liability Act of 1987. Congressional sources confess privately that a deal was cut with industry behind closed doors, and that Dingell may be serving his constituency, the auto makers, who would like to reduce their risk of lawsuits.

That makes particularly sensitive the question of who might have helped ghostwrite the bill.

Schwartz is a respected law professor at Georgetown University -- his students refer to him as "Schwartz on torts" -- and author of five books. He says that Richardson's bill is a version of the Model Uniform Product Liability Act he drafted in 1977 while working for the Commerce Department. But he says lawmakers have made significant changes since then.

As he is a scholar on the subject, he says it is only natural that lawmakers seek advice from him.

Advice is one thing, but lawmakers appeared to rely on the likable Schwartz for more than academic analysis, especially considering that industry is paying for Schwartz's time as he sits in committee hearings.

At other times during the subcommittee hearing, industry lobbyists gathered comfortably in the hearing antechamber, traditionally off limits to all but subcommittee staff and those invited by the members.

The bill would perform the needed service of unifying how the state courts handle product liability suits, but it would also let manufacturers off the hook in significant ways. They would be safe from punitive damages if the Food and Drug Administration approved the product before it went on the market. And the manufacturers would be protected if their products were designed with the best technology at the time, even if that technology later proved defective.