The House yesterday turned its back on Ralph Nader, assorted consumer groups and its Democratic leadership to defeat, 227 to 189, a bill to create a new federal consumer protection agency.
The vote was a victory for business groups, which had lobbied heavily against the legislation. It was also a defeat for the White House, which had lobbied for it.
The consumer protection agency idea has been before Congress in one from or another for eight years. The House action means the idea is now dead, Rep. Frank Horton (R-N.Y.), a leader of the losing side, said last night.
An obviously wounded Nader said of the defeat. "The corrupting influence of big business campaign contributions promised or withdrawn has never been more clear than in the last few days. That is why big business' massive lobbying defeated a measure supported by a 2-to-1 public margin and by 150 consumer, labor, farm and elderly groups. But those members who today voted against the consumer should knew that consumers will organize to vote against them tomorrow."
But U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Richard L. Lesher said, "This is truly a remarkable victory. The House majority clearly heard the voices of the American people, who are weary of too much government in their lives - too much protection, too much of what other people think is good for them."
In an impassioned speech for the bill, House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill (D-Mass.) adked, "In good conscience can we deny to the consumer . . . the same opportunity industry has to be heard before regulatory agencies? Business has its representatives, but the people send you here, ordinary John Q. Publics send you here, and you are the only one who can represent them."
O'Neill took a similar bill off the House calendar last year when it appeared he did not have the votes.
The bill was considerably scaled down after that. But even with the White House on its side - President Carter personally called several members - this new version was defeated.
The bill had passed the House during the Ford administration by votes as great as 344 to 44. But that was when President Ford had threatened to veto it. Now with a Democratic House and a Democratic President the legislation has lost support, largely because many younger Democrats have campaign on anti-government themes and do not want to create any new federal bureaucracy even one designed to protect consumers.
In fact, the fight over the new agency had become a largely symbolic battle of anti-government versus pro-government forces.
During yesterday's debate several members noted that Carter had promised to scale down the size of government.
In addition to anti-government sentiment, many middle-of-the-road Democrats resented the tactics of Nader, who blasted even former friends who expressed doubts about the bill as "mushy liberals." In some of these cases Nadar took his fight to their districts, calling press conferences in their home towns to denounce them.
Rep. John Anderson (R-Ill.) summed when he said in a statement, the bill would "create a costly new layer of government bureaucracy that consumers do not need and do not want.
"What I hear from most small bsuinessmen and the average blue collar worker and consumer is that government's already too big, too intrusive and too bureaucratic. The people aren't crying out for more bureaucracies to presumably protect them from other bureaucracies; they want us to strip away some of the layers of bureaucracy and red tape and make more common sense out of what we've got."
As in former bills, the agency under yesterday's bill would have had the power to represent the consumer in proceedings before other government departments and regulatory agencies, whenever it determined the interests of consumers were substantially effected.
It would also have had the right to appeal agency actions or decisions to the court.
But if it did not participate in the agency decision, it would have had no special right to appeal the decision, as in previous bills, a change made to ensure that the proposed agency would have had no greater right than businesses in the appeal process.
Also under yesterday's bill, the agency could not have demanded that businesses answer its questions.
The functios and funding for 20 consumer representatives already in some government departments and agencies would have been transferred to the new agency, for what supporters said would be a savings of $6.6 million.