In 1974 and 1975, Rep. Patricia Schroeder, a liberal Democrat from Denver, voted for a bill to create a consumer protection agency.
In 1977, she wrote a letter to consumer advocate Ralph Nader's organization questioning some provisions of the bill.
Suddenly, according to Schroeder, major contributors were calling her and demanding to know why she had "sold out" to big business. She found Nader's group had instigated the calls.
Then Nader wrote a column in which he labeled her and three other Democrats as "mushy liberals." Finally, in November 1977, Nader, at a press conference in Denver, accused Schroeder of opposing the bill in order to attract big business contributions to her campaign.
Similar attacks were launched by Nader in the districts of other liberal and moderate Democrats and Republicans who voiced doubts about the bill.
Democratic Caucus Chairman Thomas S. Foley (D. Wash.) was accused by Nader of acting as a "broker for agribusiness raids on the treasury." Rep. Andrew Jacobs Jr. (D-Ind.), was accused of being a "reactionary," Rep. Paul N. McCloskey Jr. (R. Calif.) was called "disgustingly repulsive and a double-crosser" when he voted against the bill in committee last spring.
Rep. Robert Giaimo (D. Conn.) was attacked in a radio program in his district "before I had made up my mind on the bill."
On Tuesday night, all of them but McCloskey voted against the bill to create a consumer protection agency. The measure was badly beaten on the House floor by a 227-to-189 vote, and Nader, consumer groups and the White House were scarred by the defeat.
No one involved was claiming yesterday that Nader was the reason for the bill's defeat. That was attributed mainly to well-oiled campaign by national and hometown business groups against the bill, and some miscalculations by the embrassed White House as well.
Schroeder, for one does not believe nader's attacks on her and at least a dozen other liberals and moderates were the major reason for the bill's defeat. And she and others denied that Nader's attack led them to vote against the bill.
But she says, "I got a lot more involved than I probably would have and I took a lot closer look at that bill. I came to the conclusion that it did not best represent consumers' interest."
Schroeder also said the attack led to "a lot of talk in the cloakrooms and whip's meetings" and a blacklash against Nader's tactics.
"I think he's going through male menopause of a mid-life crisis," she said.
Most of those attacked say Nader didn't hurt them politically, and may have helped them, Jacobs, who represents a somewhat conservative district closely divided between republicans and Democrats, said, "I reported Nader's two attacks as contributions on my campaign financing report."
House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. blamed a well-organised lobbying effort by business groups such as the U. S. Chamber of Commerce for the bill's defeat. "So many members of our party made commitments at home, I didn't have the votes," O'Neill said. He said the White House had pressured him and consumer groups to bring the bill to the floor though he knew the votes weren't there. He also attributed the loss to a trend towards anti-government feelings.
But O'Neill also said of Nader's tactics, "Let's put it this way. It didn't help. I know of about eight guys who would have voted with us if it were not for Nader."
Even Rep. Toby Moffett (D. Conn.), an ardent Nader supporter, said "It was probably counterproductive" to attack liberals, though Moffett said it would not have been counterproductive if the consumer side had been as well organized and had had the clout of business groups.
But Mark Green, a lobbyist for Nader's Congress Watch, defended the tactics. He said it kept some liberals who were inclined to waver in line.