LET'S SEE NOW. The so-called "consumer" and "public interest" organizations began to spring up a few years ago, at least in part, because someone thought it was time to have someone looking full-time over the shoulder of the so-called "special interest" organizations. Now, some of the "special interest" groups, most of them business oriented, are getting together to figure out how they can look over the shoulder of the "public interest" lobbyists. This development was inevitable and hardly deserved the round of boos that promptly arose from some of the potential watchees.
The problem, of course, is that there is no consensus on what the public interest or the consumer interest or, even, a private interest really is. The National Radio Broadcasters Assosciation, which called the establishment groups together to talk about this new watch-bird organization, contends that it has long been, in the words of its president, "among the most vigorous supporters of valid public interest causes." Yet it now finds itself and its members regularly under attack from newly organized groups that also claim to speak for the "public interest."
The same is true across the board. Do the Ralph Nader organizations represent all consumers? Does Common Cause represent all right-thinking political activists? Does the National Association of Manufacturers speak for all big businesses? Obviously not. Each group is composed of those who agree, more or less, with its general position -- be it economic or political or social in nature -- and would like to see it have some influence in Washington. Almost inevitably, those who have a strong view on any individual issue believe the view they hold incorporates the "public interest."
We suspect that what is involved, as much as anything, in the desire of the established organizations to oversee the newer arrivals on the field is . . . money. The government has a growing interest in increasing general public participation in the rule-making and lawmaking process. The regulatory agencies, in particular, have been looking to the new consumer and public interest groups to produce that kind of testimony -- of, say, the "average" consumer -- and have been providing the money, in some instances, to make that possible.
Properly handled, this is a useful development. Bureaucrats and even lawmakers get too isolated from the general public. But with the introduction of money from the federal Treasury into the process comes the potential for abuse. The temptation to create a "public interest" organization with no constituency and nothing but a nice name and a few officers will not be resisted by everyone; indeed, some of those organizations may already be on the scene. Somebody ought to be looking over their shoulder, and if that is the kind of watch bird the radio broadcasters have in mind, it can do good by exposing the "private" interests of public interest groups -- just as those groups have been exposing the "private" interests of the established lobbies.