THE PRESS RELEASES arrive in the mail nearly every day. The Committee for National Security. The Committee for enan Effective Congress. The American Council on Science and Health. The Committee for Energy Awareness. The U.S.A. Foundation.
The names are patriotic-sounding, forward-looking, uplifting. And they all have something in common: They don't tell you a heck of a lot about what the group stands for.
I may be a bit cynical, but it seems to me that we are entering an era of obfuscation -- that the real powers in our society now prefer to stay in the background while these surrogate groups toil on their behalf. It gives their efforts a kind of objective sheen that pronouncements by chemical companies or drug manufacturers could never achieve. After all, who can quarrel with folks who call themselves the U.SA. Foundation?
In the old days, things were simpler. The Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO had their political action committees, the Democrats and Republicans their campaign arms, and it was clear who was fighting for what. But that was before all these committees, commissions, councils, societies, associations, foundations, federations and plain old lobbies multiplied like so many bunnies and burrowed into their downtown office cubicles.
These days, it seems that half the people in Washington no longer work for a living, but spend their time representing those who do. And even an avid fan can't tell the players without a scorecard.
Take the Committee for Energy Awareness, which launched a $30- million advertising and lobbying campaign in 1983 to promote the safety of nuclear power. What its slick, low-key television ads failed to mention is that the group gets more than half its funding from 50 utilities, some of which have billed their unsuspecting customers for the media blitz.
These ads just wouldn't have the same reassuring tone if the tag line had been: "Brought to you by America's nuclear utilities, makers of Three Mile Island. Energy for a Brighter Tomorrow."
According internal committee documents, the publicity drive was to include "training and placement of independent energy experts on local radio and television talk shows in priority regions . . . letters to the editor by energy experts . . . (and) op-ed columns and other bylined articles by nuclear supporters outside the industry." All of this was designed to "establish the credibility of CEA as more than a propaganda organization."
Now it's not exactly impossible for an enterprising reporter to find out who runs these nonprofit groups, which must meet at least some disclosure requirements. Some will even furnish a list of their contributors, although others are more secretive about their finances.
But these inquiries often are like peeling the layers of an onion. A group's funding may come from other, equally obscure foundations. And the average viewer watching a commercial at home is hardly likely to investigate the sponsor's financial ties.
Conservatives hardly have a monopoly on the committee industry; there is no shortage of liberal groups with long mailing lists and left-wing agendas. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, for example, puts out reports that are highly critical of President Reagan's policies, and it's useful to know that it's run by a former Carter administration official. The Center for Science in the Public Interest spends much of its time attacking drug companies because they are the leading villains in its world.
But while these self-styled consumer groups may represent their own concept of the public interest -- one perhaps shared by many unions and Democrats -- they don't appear to be fronting for specific financial interests like some of their counterparts on the right. And, at least in my experience, they tend to be more candid about their funding sources and political outlook.
Recently there has been a new public service ad that begins, "Stay tuned for a medical bulletin on Reye's Syndrome." The announcer assures us there's no proof that any drug causes this potentially fatal disease in children. The sponsor is the Committee on the Care of Children.
Of course, the ad doesn't say that health officials have been warning for two years that giving aspirin to certain sick children increases their chances of contracting Reye's Syndrome. Nor does it mention that the Committee on the Care of Children was organized with aspirin-industry funding that was channeled through another group, the International Science Exchange. Federal officials recently called the ad "seriously misleading."
This sort of subterfuge has spread to the realm of politics, where Voters for Joe Doa has been replaced by such fund-raising groups as Citizens for the Republic (Ronald Reagan's PAC) and Committee for the Future of America (Walter Mondale's). This was underscored during last October's first anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Grenada, when nationwide ceremonies and campus rallies were sponsored by the U.S.A. Foundation.
A few phone calls revealed that U.S.A. Foundation chairman Jack Abramoff also happens to head the College Republican National Committee, and that other College Republicans were helping to stage the Grenada extravaganza. They insisted it was not designed to aid President Reagan's reelection. This is not surprising, since the U.S.A. Foundation is what's known in IRS jargon as a "501/C3" organization, meaning that its tax-exempt status can be yanked if it engages in partisan politics.
A spokesman for Abramoff explained the arrangement: "When he has his College Republican hat on, he's partisan. When he has his U.S.A. hat on, he's nonpartisan."
No such identity crisis afflicts the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), which bills itself as a conservative public-interest group. It issues a steady stream of reports contending that saccharin does not cause cancer, that the pesticide EDB is safe, that there is no proven link between heart disease and a diet high in fat and cholesterol.
At least a third of the group's funding comes from food, chemical and petroleum companies -- from Coca-Cola and Dow Chemical to Eli Lilly and Shell Oil -- that have an interest in the products that ACSH keeps defending. But its director, Elizabeth M. Whelan, challenges the notion that her group is beholden to its financial backers.
"The perception among our enemies is that we're speaking for industry," Whelan said. "But we call it as we see it. The funding has nothing to do with it."
This rationale seemed to evaporate, however, when the ACSH filed a friend-of-the-court brief in a 1982 lawsuit brought by the Formaldehyde Institute. The suit succeeded in overturning a federal ban on insulation made with formaldehyde, a suspected carcinogen.
It turns out that the ACSH's legal brief was paid for by Georgia-Pacific Co., a leading manufacturer of formaldehyde and a member of the Formaldehyde Institute. Georgia- Pacific paid its Washington law firm $40,000 to write the 45-page brief, which ACSH then submitted under its name to a federal appeals court.
Maybe it's not realistic to expect all these groups to be up front about what they really stand for. We shouldn't have to spend half our time figuring out who's fronting for whom. But I sure am tired of hearing the latest sugar-coated message from the Motherhood and Apple Pie Institute.