Metzenbaum's Senate Finale

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'TWAS the week after GATT and all through the House - and Senate - nary a creature was stirring, except Democratic staffers doing their farewell packing. But what's this? In room 406 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, a packed hearing in progress, as though the lame-duck 103rd Congress still had legislative business to do.

It was the Senate Labor Subcommittee, in the person of Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio, alone on the dais. With words like ``outraged,'' ``double talk,'' and ``embarrassment,'' he was flailing away at Steven Kaplan, general counsel of the Department of Transportation, in the witness chair.

The cause of the displeasure of the retiring (but not very retiring) senator, was a deal the department had made with General Motors to end a two-year investigation of pickup trucks held to be unsafe. DOT dropped the demand for recall of some five million vehicles in return for GM's promise to spend some $50 million on safety research. Secretary Federico Pena canceled a public hearing with accident victims.

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So, with reporters and C-SPAN in attendance, Mr. Metzenbaum held the hearing instead. And thus he did again what had come so naturally to him during almost 20 years in the Senate - fighting for consumers and building fires under those in power.

Here, a stipulation is necessary. Howard Metzenbaum is a tennis-playing friend, whose maverick qualities (if not his backhand) have always appealed to me. He is one of the last unabashed liberals in the Senate. He was one of only 13 Democrats to vote against the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, saying it would favor big business and shortchange American workers. He fought hard, but unsuccessfully, to repeal the antitrust exemption for baseball so that the players, although not exactly downtrodden workers, could sue the owners. He fought against the pharmaceutical and insurance industries and against the food industry on nutrition labeling. A leading gun-control advocate, he sponsored the Brady Bill, standing up to the NRA. With a civil rights record that goes back to marching with Martin Luther King in Selma, Ala., his sponsorship of the Civil Rights Act of 1991 was only to be expected.

He's a millionaire who acts like a labor organizer. He probably torpedoed more special interest bills than any other senator. And he savored the unpopularity among colleagues that this brought him. He won the affection of conservative Republicans because he was always so forthright about what he was doing, which goes a long way in Congress.

So, having decided to retire from the Senate, having seen his son-in-law Joel Hyatt fail to win election to his seat, where else would you expect to find Metzenbaum in his last days as a senator, but holding forth in a hearing room, storming the battlements of corporate power, or maybe just tilting at windmills?

GM and other corporate giants that Metzenbaum storms against haven't heard the last of him. The next position of the not-very-retiring senator: president of the Consumer Federation of America. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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