WHAT CAN YOU SAY about a bill that passed the House or Senate five times in seven years, that was endorsed by President Carter, Speaker O'Neill and 150 consumer, labor, elderly and citizen groups, that the public supported by a 2-to-1 margin in Harris surveys -- and yet was defeated in the House by a vote of 227 to 189 this month?

In a Washington populated by surrogates and symbols, the vote against legislation to create a consumer advocacy office in Washington was widely heralded as a major defeat for Ralph Nader and Carter. But surely this misses the more significant point that it was a major defeat for consumers.

In defeat, though, the consumer movement learned valuable, if expensive, lessons. The reasons for the bill's loss illuminate how power is played out in The City of Results. Why did it lose? Business Lobbying

BIG BUSINESS interests -- such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, the National Association of Manufacturers, Armstrong Cork, Procter & Gamble, Sears -- made the bill a litmus-test issue of a representative's fidelity to their creed.

House Speaker Tip O'Neill said that he had "never seen such extensive lobbying" in his quarter-century in Congress. A campaign of stimulated mail inundated the desks of undecided members. The Business Roundtable hired Leon Jaworski to lobby against the bill in early 1977, and later hired the North American Precis Syndicate (NAPC) to send around canned editorials and cartoons against the consumer agency to 3,800 newspapers and weeklies. These prepared statements -- statements that never acknowledged as their source a business lobby opposed to this bill -- appeared approximately 2,000 times, according to NAPC. Identical hostile editorials appeared in 10 newspapers around the country, newspapers not of the same chain.

The Chamber of Commerce conducted a national opinion poll in 1975, which it then reproduced several times over the next three years. The poll concluded that "81 per cent of Americans are opposed to a new consumer agency." The Library of Congress, however, discredited this survey as biased and unfair because the key question was phrased as follows (italics added): "Those in favor of setting up an additional consumer protection agency on top of all the other agencies," etc. An outraged Sen. Charles Percy denounced the poll from the floor, saying, "The dissemination of useless poll information does nothing to help the image of American business, which is at an all-time low." Defections Among Moderates

ANXIETY OVER right-wing opposition exploiting the "big government" slogan provoked defections from the consumer camp. Reps. Tom Foley (D-Wash.) and John Anderson (R-Ill.) -- chairmen of the House Agriculture Committee and the Republican Conference -- had previously voted for the legislation. Then, in the spring of 1977, these two respected House bellwethers recanted and announced their opposition -- Foley three days after an ultraconservative had won a special congressional election in nearby Seattle, and Anderson after discovering that his own party's right wing had targeted him for defeat.

In retrospect, these prominent defections probably doomed the bill -- and made respectable subsequent ones by moderates in marginal districts. Reps. Robert N. Giaimo (D-Conn.), Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), Leon E. Panetta (D-Calif.) and Hamilton Fish Jr. (R-N.Y.), like Anderson and Foley, were all nervous about challenges from the right, not the left. Speaker O'Neill's injunction -- "Some members say they're worried about the next election; do the right thing and the election will take care of itself" -- was not always heeded.

There were, to be sure, some profiles in courage. Rep. Wyche Fowler (D-Ga.) was the only member of his delegation to vote yes; Rep. Jim Mattox (D-Tex.) voted yes; so did Republicans William Cohen of Maine, Carl Pursell of Michigan and Chalmers Wylie of Ohio, despite substantial contrary pressure (a week before the vote one of these members picked up a suit at his cleaners and found a note opposing the bill pinned to its lapel). Lack of Democratic Cohesion

THE GOP MADE the consumer bill a partisan issue, as peer pressure led House Republicans to vote 11 to 1 against. Yet fully 101 Democrats voted no. In the freshman Democratic class, 25 voted yes and 24 voted no. Many in the Democratic opposition, of course, were the Dixiecrats and Far West representatives who often join with Republicans to oppose reform measures. But added to these blocs were a couple of dozen moderates who made the margin of difference -- even four Democrats who had sent a "Dear Colleague" letter supporting the bill: Reps. Charles Rose (D-N.C.), Harold Volkmer (D-Mo.), Tom Steed (D-Okla.) and Stephen Neal (D-N.C.).

Whatever the cause -- a devolution of the powers of the speaker, an antipathy to Rayburn-like arm-twisting or Johnsonian log-rolling, the decline of Democratic Party funds for candidates, the non-coattails of President Carter -- this lack of party cohesion in the face of Republican solidarity disturbed Tip O'Neill. He had worked intensely on behalf of the bill. On the House floor just before the vote, he bellowed out his support in tones recalling Norris and Kefauver: "Never mind the commitment that you may have made to a businessman along the line. You have only one commitment, and that commitment is to the public. . . the consumer."

Having thus committed his prestige, the defeat was especially wounding to O'Neill. At a raucus meeting of Democratic whips the next day, he thundered that Democratic congressmen couldn't reap the benefits of their party association and then vote Republican -- especially when the Republicans had made this a partisan issue. To do so would lead to collective calamity in November. Others in attendance complained about Carter's unwillingness to help them politically -- and some observed that his half dozen phone calls the day before the expected vote was an underwhelming effort. There was widespread resentment that they had fought harder for the administration's bill than had the president. The Anti-Government Mood

BUSINESS EFFORTS successfully capitalized on a current fad, which one could call "the new anarchism." It holds that all regulation is bad, indeed that all government is bad. From Wallace to Reagan to Ford or even Carter, the sense that government is the problem, not the solution, has spread from the ultra-right to infect some moderate members of Congress as well. One of them, a ranking northern Democrat, told Vice President Mondale that he opposed the bill because we have "too much government."

The opposition lobby had the money and machinery to propagandize that the issue was "big government" -- not industrial fraud, not consumer health and safety, not one-sided regulatory proceedings. Thus, the repeated refrain that the Office of Consumer Representation was just more "OSHA-like" regulation stuck -- even though there was no reasonable comparison between a regulatory agency with a $136 million budget and the power to order business to keep fire extinguishers 2 feet off the floor and a $15-million office armed only with the power of an advocate.

As the vote neared, many members acknowledged that they supported the bill on its merits but didn't, as one said, "want to explain 500 times in my district why the consumer office wasn't just more government." Afterward, a southern Democrat who swam against the current and voted affirmatively said, with some bitterness, "If we had voted today on a bill to abolish the U.S. government, it probably would have passed." Business Money, Not Party Loyalty

REPLACING the benefits of yesterday's party cohesion and presidential coattails is the promise of business contributions today. One of the "reforms" of recent years permitted corporations to raise money for candidates. Last year, for the first time, corporate contributions to congressional candidates through "political action committees" (which do not include the millions given by individual executives) exceeded labor contributions, $937,000 to $844,000. Many Democrats can now ignore the exhortations of a speaker or president because they have independent access to the kind of money needed for reelection.

One California Democrat in a meeting with consumer advocates half-joked that he might vote for the consumer bill if their groups could throw him the "$100,000 fund-raiser" he might sacrifice by doing so. Two swing House members candidly told labor lobbyists that they had recently and for the first time raised $20,000 to $40,000 from small business groups, which had been instructed by the Chamber to be opposed. One representative was told by his campaign finance chairman that their major contributors were opposed to the bill -- at which point, to his credit, the congressman fired his finance chairman. One Florida representative told Ralph Nader that he had no objections to the bill, but added, "I'm afraid that the Chamber will run a candidate against me in the primary." He voted no. The Post's Reversal

AFTER ENDORSING a consumer advocacy office several times in the past, The Washington Post stunned both business and consumer advocates by editorially opposing the bill the day the voting began. The reasons offered were embarrassingly muddled: The editorial talked about how consumer-oriented had been Carter's appointments as though having a Brandeis on the bench would mean a defense counsel was no longer needed), and it managed to deprecate the need for consumer representation in genuine adversary proceedings as "another pile of briefs on commissioners' desks." But for those representatives who needed a plausible reason beyond the "big government" diversion to oppose the bill, the respectable Post provided the perfect fig leaf.

The day after the bill's defeat, a front-page Post headline implied that Nader's actions helped defeat the bill -- not the business lobby against it, not the previous supporters who abandoned the bill, not its own editorial. The theory of a few House members was that Nader's pressure on wavering members had antagonized them into voting no.

A few members thus tried to use Nader as an alibi for their anti-consumer vote, which is a comment on their own independence and integrity. As Adm. Hyman Rickover said afterward of this criticism of Nader, "They never complain when business tries to buy them, only when someone stands up for the people." Poor Timing

THE VOTE on the consumer agency was originally to have occurred last November, at the end of the first session of the 95th Congress. But a good-faith disagreement occurred between White House consumer adviser Esther Peterson and consumer groups on the one hand, and the House leadership and Frank Moore's White House lobbying office on the other. The former thought that if the votes were ever going to be there, it would be in November -- due to the favorable momentum generated by the nationwide grassroots "nickel campaign" for the bill and by a compromise version that had corralled 14 new votes. The latter thought the votes simply weren't there. In addition, the speaker and the president were preoccupied with other matters at the end of a hectic session. As a result, the bill was pulled from the House calendar.

Anybody can speculate as to what might have happened in November, but at least this much is known: In the week before the originally scheduled vote, Reps. Rose, Neal, Steed, Volkmer, Fish, Glenn English (D-Okla.), Larry Pressler (R-S.D.), John Cavanaugh (D-Neb.), David Cornwell (D-Ind.) and Robert Gammage (D-Tex.) all indicated they would vote for the bill; also Reps. Edward Koch (D-N.Y.) and Herman Badillo (D-N.Y.) were then still in Congress. By February, none of these congressmen voted in favor. Supporters of the bill gave business interests three months to build up pressure against wavering members -- and they did. (The final margin of 33 votes overstates the actual difference, since several members voted no only when they saw that the bill could not pass and in order not to needlessly antagonize business supporters. On the morning of the vote, business lobbyists against the bill thought they had an 8-vote margin.) Lessons for All

THE BILL'S demise is instructive to the consumer, congressional and business communities.

Consumer groups must reconcile two divergent facts. On the one hand, Louis Harris calls consumerism the most broadly supported movement he has ever studied: his surveys document a 55-to-28 per cent public endorsement for the consumer advocacy bill. Yet it lost. The goal for consumer groups, therefore, is to convert broad popular support into legislative punch.

Two obvious approaches include local organizing and public finance reform. "You win or lose in the districts, not in Washington," said freshman Rep. Donald Pease (D-Ohio). Consumer organizations will have to organize better at the neighborhood level, so that on future votes members will hear from interested, indigenous consumer groups and not merely from local Chamber voices. In addition, until some version of public funding of elections cuts the cord between business giving and member voting, citizen interests will forever compete at a disadvantage in the political marketplace. If the defeat of H.R. 9718 leads to these two results, it may yet prove an inadvertent blessing.

This case study also demonstrates why our elected officials should have the courage and skill to try to educate their districts about the costs and benefits of government programs, rather than merely surrender to purchased prejudice.

It should not prove impossible to argue that government can work to improve people's lives -- that the civil rights acts give blacks legal equality and the South hundreds of black officials; that the Auto Safety Act saves an estimated 12,000 lives a year, that the Food and Drug Administration prevented the sale of thalidomide; that public financing for the past presidential election succeeded in keeping much tainted money away from our highest office.

Finally, as for the big business groups, this bill may prove that nothing fails like success. In a survey conducted for the House Ethics Committee, 11 organizations were rated according to the public's perception of their ethics. "Consumer action groups" rated first and "large companies" 10th.

It is now time for business to do more than veto change. What is their consumer program?Without one they will continue to deserve the obloquy they earn. "Those who want it all," said Jack Brooks, chairman of the House committee that reported out the consumer bill, "will lose it all."