The best way to revive consumer protection legislation in Congress is first to disarm the special interests who recently wrecked the latest effort to establish a federal agency to guard against consumer exploitation. Fortuitously, the opportunity to do just that is now at hand.
Just before or after the Easter recess of Congress, a determined new drive will be made to establishe public financing of elction campaigns for the House, as is now the rule for presidential races, with the intent of freeing candidates from dependence on the large contributions of vested often selfish, interests.
The anguished post-mortems over the unexpected, stunning defeat of the bill to create a national consumer representation agency has generated all kinds of recriminations, but there is now broad agreement that it was the highly organized, well-heeled business lobby, to whom so many congressmen owe so much, that turned the tide against the long-sought legislation.
Even now the sponsors can hardly believe what happened, for the bill appeared to have everything going for it, including public-opinion polls showing overwhelming popular support for the idea. President Carter endorsed it, as did the leadership of a House dominated 2 to 1 by the president's party. In addition it was backed by 150 labor, farm, community and senior-citizen groups.
Yet it went to defeat by 22.7 to 189, with 101 Democrats, including a number of former backers, voting against it. Moreover, it was a much weaker bill than similar ones passed in previous years. In 1975, the proposed agency was approved by both the Senate and House (the latter bu 344 to 44, despite the opposition of President Ford. His veto threat, however, finally stopped the bill.
AFter the House reversed itself last month, the National Assosciation of Manufacturers, voicing the general reaction, saw it as "a stunning defeat for the Carter administration." One congressman remarked to me, "It's simply incredible that a president whose party controls 66 percent of the House and 62 percent of the Senate can't get Congress to pass a bill wanted by over two-thirds of the people."
Since then, however, most of the leading proponents of the agency have come to the conclusion that there is little point in wringing their hands over the political problems of the administration. The realists among them now agree that hopes for the future depend on reducing the influence of the business lobby.
There's no doubt that a coalition of business groups did an effective lobbying job. The NAM said, "Business deserves all the credit." The U.S. Chamber of Commerce called it "a remarkable victory" for business. House Speaker Tip O'Neill said it was the most extensive lobbying he had seen in 25 years. The United Auto Workers said it showed "how business can mobilize know-nothingism in an otherwise liberal atmostphere."
All of which prompted Ralph Nader to charge that "the corrupting influence of big business campaign contributions, promised or withdrawn," was never made more clear than in the defeat of the consumer bill.
So now attention is focusing on a new effort to eliminate such contributions by extending public financing of election campaigns to candidates for Congress, first to the House and then to the Senate.
In 1976, with private funding of the presidential race outlawed, the special interest money poured into the congressional races, with victorious House and Senate candidates spending over $55 million on their contests. The senators averages $617,000 each, and the representatives averaged $80,000.
The 14 major committee chairmen, who largely control the Senate, recieved nearly $900,000 in campaign contributions from special groups, who also provide two-thirds of the money that 15 major House committee chairmen spent to win reelection.
Members of the extremely powerful Senate Finance and HOuse Ways and Means Committee alone got over $2 million in campaign contributions from the same interests.
A public-financing bill was headed for passage in the Senate last year, only to be choked off by a filibuster. This time around, however, it will have the support of Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W. Va.) the major leader, who says he was impressed at how well the reform worked in the presidential election.
On the House side, public financing is expected to reach the floor in the near future as an amendment to a bill making changes in the federal election law and Federal Ekection Commission practices.
Its chances have been enhanced by a recent national pool showing that a large bipartisan majority of voters not only favor public financing, but want all other contributions prohibited. It's an election year so maybe Congress will get the message.