On the day of the vote, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) put out the following recorded message for corporate offices around the country:
Yesterday the House began consideration of the consumer protection bill HR 5805.Major amendments and final passage are now expected late this afternoon . . . Administration lobbyists crowded the House halls yesterday and the president himself is making calls to wavering representatives. With a hard administration push, what looked like a sure defeat for the consumer bill is now looking an exceedingly close rote today. NAM members should make personal calls immediately to their representatives to make sure that they are not caving in to administration pressure to create a new bureaucracy. Your efforts are crucial to defeat any version of the bill today.
The debate began shortly after 1 o'clock that afternoon. Tens of thousands of words and several hours later the final votes were counted. Defeat, crushing, for the bill, for the Carter administration, and for Jimmy Carter personally.
In the first crucial congressional test of the year, the president went down decisively. At a time when he sorely needed a victory, this very touch town was given another example of his vulnerability. That lesson will not be lost on the lobbyists who fill the corridors of Congress. And the irony is that Jimmy Carter, the candidate, provided the political tools that helped fashion his defeat. What happened last week is another sign of Carter's troubles in transforming promises into practice. It's only one of many reasons why this defeat has left bitterness and recrimination among some of his supporters.
And, something else - a sense of increasing strength on the part of corporate lobbyists in Washington.
On the morning after the vote, NAM produced this jubilant message for its corporate members:
Today's big story is the defeat of the consumer agency bill HR 6805 . . . The consumer agency idea was effectively killed in the 95th Congress and perhaps for the future as the House defeated HR 6805 by a 38-vote margin, 227 to 189. Business deserves all the credit for bringing attention to the expansion of the bureaucracy to Congress and making the House realize that red tape was not justified. It was a stunning defeat for the Carter administration and Ralph Nader, both of which have swarmed the Hill in recent weeks lobbying for the bill . . . NAM has been in the forefront opposing the consumer agency for the past eight years.NAM members are commended for their efforts over the years working to defeat this bill . . . NAM members are asked to thank all those representatives who opposed the bill by a leter or by phone.
Similar words were sent out by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Washington headquarters to its members throughout the nation. It was, the chamber proclaimed, "a remarkable victory" for business. So it was. And, so it is a revealing illustration of Carter's presidential difficulties.
In the spring, when the administration was proceeding smoothly on course and the pools were recording high public approval, it appeared as if the long-debated proposal for a consumer protection agency would finally become reality.
Carter had taken a strong stand on consumer issues as a candidate, his record as governor of Georgia won him backing from national consumer organizations and his presidential appointments placed vigorous consumer advocates in important government positions. Business, too, watched and worried. At that time, one Washington representative for a major trade association privately set out the word to powerful clients around the nation: be prepared to live with the reality of a federal consumer protection agency in 1977.
The Carter administration was operating on the same assumption. A high point came last June 1 when the White House played host to a large gathering of labor, business, consumer, congressional and administration representatives. They filled the auditorium where the President holds his press conferences. Speaker after speaker sounded the battle cry. Esther Peterson, who Carter had appointed as his consumer affair adviser, evoked the flavor of a revival as she spelled out the prospects for the consumer bill: Now we have a President who will sign this bill when it gets to his desk - applause, and it will get to his desk - applause. Why are you here? I'll tell you why. To get in the fight.
Esther Peterson has had a long and successful Washington career in helping pass major legislation during the Truman, Kennedy and Johnson administrations. When she introduced Jimmy Carter to that group, the president was vigorous and forceful.
"Now when it is sure that the White House will approve this legislation," he said, " . . . the lobbyists have come out of the woodwork and the Congress is under intense pressure."
The business community, he said, was forming "selfish . . . special-interest groups" and spreading "misformation" about his proposed consumer agency.
That very day Richard Lesher was looking out his window over Lafayette Park toward the White House. He's the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and he was talking about "the great untold story" in Washington. He meant, he explained, the beginning of a new era in American history. The 40-year period of big government was drawing to a close.
"I believe," he was saying, "that 30 to 40 years from now people will look back and say 'These were the years when the transition took place.' Over that last period of time we've broken all the ground of all areas of human activity. We've established all the parameters. I don't care what you're talking about - the environment, outer space, human rights, civil rights, women's rights - right across the board. We know what the ball game is that we're playing in. We know what the objectives are and very few people in society really disagree on them.
"They want human rights. They want consumers to be heard. They want all of these things. The arguments today are over the means toward the end. Now some of these means have been put into place very very carelessly. We've thrown up government as the catch-all solution to all problems. We're just now waking up to the fact that government is ill-equipped to deal with many of these problems. We're waking up."
And big business, he was saying, was going to be in the forefront of this drive.
The week of decision for the consumer bill began with two sharp contradictions. Public opinion surveys showed citizens increasingly favoring a federal consumer agency. But the public's representatives in Congress clearly were opposed.
On Monday Louis Harris, the pollster, was telling Barbara Walters on ABC-TV that: "We find by 2 to 1 the public wants such an agency." When asked if Congress was following the will of the people, he said: "Not at all."
In the postmortems of the defeat, a number of factors were cited: the president failed to rally the public to political action; he was too enmeshed in other struggles over Panama, energy and the Mideast; his own congressional liaison staff headed by Frank Moore either never really backed the bill or was inept in gaining support; some of his supporters, like Ralph Nader, needlessly antagonized House members.
But in the end the main reason for the defeat was simple. Business lobbyists, in what Speaker Tip O'Neill described as the most extensive lobbying he's seen in 25 years, trounced the Carter forces. And they did it by playing on the fears of adding more layers to the federal bureaucracy.
That was one of the winning themes that placed Jimmy Carter in the White House. Now it's become an issue on which he loses.