A new verb is being hard on Capitol Hill these days: to nickel. It's transitive, and some 80 congressmen are the direct object.
Doing the nikeling are Ralph Nader and a large coalition of consuer groups. In June they announced a major effort to lobby congressmen they find wavering on the consumer protection agency bill by sending them nickels. The legislation, termed by Nader and friends "the most important consumer issue of the decade," is now stalled in Congress.
The bill, which is supported by President Carter, was expected to pass Congress easily this year, but met intense and effective lobbying from business interess and the Chamber of Commerce. The proposed agency would have the authority to represent consumers before government boards and regulatory agencies and challenge adverse court decisions.
The consumer coalition, which also includes Common Cause, the Consuer Federation of American and the AFLO-CIO, chose to send nickels because they say the proposed $15 million agency would cost each American only five cents.
Last week the White House announced a reorganization plan to abolish or consolidate into the proposed agency 26 consumer-oriented government units, and said the would save $5 million.
Mark Green, of Nader's Congress Watch, estimates that about $4,000 letters with nickels attached have been sent to the 80 undecided congressmen.Their reaction is not enthusiastic.
"This strikes me as a highly improper way for anyone to lobby for legislation," said Rep. Samuel Stratton (D-N.Y.), who is still undecided about the proposed agency. "If it has bad any effect on me, it would tend to make me vote against the bill. For Common Cause to be sending out money on legislation isn't very funny."
Stratton has returned the 360 nickels his office has received.
Other congressmen are a little more light-hearted about the novel lobbying effort, but no one has said publicly that is has changed any minds.
"We've certainly paid attention to the nickel campaign," said an aide to Rep. Margaret Heckler (R-Mass.), "but she's still on the fence." Her office has received almost 1,100 nickels, which she plans to return to the people who sent them, with a letter saying the agency would be paid for out of the Treasury's general fund and not by nickels from individuals.
Green said he didn't expect any congressional minds to be changed because of the nickels. "Our purpose was to get a high enough level of support of free them to vote their conscience," he said. "And if they want to say they changed their mind because of the weather, that's fine."
The nickels may not have changed many minds, but they've left a lot of congressional staffers wondering what to do with the sudden influex of coin.
Aides in Harold Hollenbeck's (R-N.J.) office didn't know what to do with the $13.55 he received. In "exasperation," they finally called the House Administration Committee, which recommended they send the money to the House Finance Office. That office turned it over to the Treasury as an anonymous contribution.
Norman D'Amours (D-N.H.) says he was "mistargeted," because he has supported the bill all along. He's returning his 500 nickels - including a wooden nickel that has an Indian on one side and buffalo on the other.
"I don't know whether that was from a supporter or an opponent" of the bill, and aide said.
Fred Rooney (D-Pa.) says he too has supported the consuer bill. He's sending his 1,200 nickels to the Good Sheperd Home in Allentown, and matching each nickel with a quarter of his own.
An aide to James Hanley (D-N.Y.) said he had issued a statement against the bill [WORD ILLEGIBLE] doesn't know what to eo with its 500 nickels because many came without return addresses.
"Getting nickeled," the aide said, "doesn't change his mind. His objection doesn't have anything to do with cost, but with adding layer of bureaucracy."