Consumer groups gird for Reagan

Will Nader's Raiders ride again? Or has the spirit of consumer advocacy been squelched by the current pro-big-business trend in Washington? Leaders of pro-consumer organizations agree -- the more the federal government caters to corporate bottom lines, the less friendly it will be to them.

This doesn't mean they'll be folding their tents and trooping silently out of Washington, however. Rather, they'll be retrenching and trying all the harder, although their efforts may be directed somewhat differently.

Nancy Drabble, acting director of Congress Watch, the consumer rights advocacy group founded by Ralph Nader in 1973, outlines these changes in tactics for her group:

* A renewed emphasis on grass-roots organization at the state and local level. Because the incoming Congress and President-elect Reagan cannot be counted on for much sympathy toward the consumer movement, she maintains, the local level may prove to be a more advantageous spot to dig in and work for legislative gains.

* Greater efforts to pull together a cohesive group of politicians in both the Senate and the House of Representatives who are friendly to consumer interests. Ms. Drabble hopes that these politicians may now be more willing to work together, because "they can't afford to disagree. Their resources are too limited."

* More defensive fighting on the floors of the House and the Senate, including the use of parliamentary procedures and techniques previously associated with conservatives such as former Sen. James Allen (D) of Alabama. "We'll show them that conservatives aren't the only ones who can filibuster!" Ms. Drabble says.

For the most part, Congress Watch expects to take a defensive rather than an offensive stance. Its fight will be more to protect past gains from erosion than to press ahead to break new ground. The group is particularly concerned about the possible scrapping of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and a loosening of the standards in the Clean Air Act.

It also plans to oppose attempts to speed up the deregulation of natural gas prices (now scheduled for 1985), and tax cuts that may help the wealthy more than the middle class.

* A return to the more traditional role of consumer groups. This means less emphasis on passing legislation -- "We're not in a position to get new legislation through now," Ms. Drabble explains -- and more use of exposes. There could be some new "Nader reports" coming out.

Things will be tough, she emphasizes, but not hopeless. "We've been shaken by this last election," she admits, "but there's nothing wrong with being shaken up a little. It brings normally complacent people out of the woodwork. It forces us to be innovative, to try harder."

Other spokesmen for consumer affairs feel that although the scene in Washington may be momentarily bleak, further down the road there could be some gains for their movement.

"We're not going to have a very sympathetic ear in Washington, that's clear," admits Paul Haussman, associate director of the University of Wisconsin Extension Center for Consumer Affairs. "And we're not going to be able to turn to Washington for redress."

Mr. Haussman is also concerned that regulatory agencies, such as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and the Consumer Public Safety Committee will be exerting less pressure on industries to conform to regulations benefiting consumers.

At the same time, however, he is encouraged by what he sees as a very great desire in the business community to prove that private initiative does work. "They're saying, 'Hey, let's get government off our backs. Let's work together without the government.'"

In so doing, Mr. Haussman feels, corporations will have to become more responsive to consumer interests. "This is just my own opinion, and it may be a minority one," he says, "but I think that if consumers can get a greater voice in the board room, that will more than offset any slowing of legislative activity or even legislative losses."

Joe Tuchinsky, co-director of the Michigan Citizens Lobby, the largest state affiliate of the Washington-based Consumer Federation of America, agrees with Nancy Drabble that "it will be a very, very tough struggle to hold on to gains made on the federal level.

"And I cringe," he adds, "to think of who Reagan will appoint to replace Mike Pertschuk as chairman of the FTC."

Based on conversations with colleagues around the country, however, Mr. Tuchinsky believes that the incoming President and Congress pose no serious threat to state- and local-level consumer movements. "In Michigan, our state elections changed the complexion of the state Legislature hardly at all. It's still pro-consumer."

Mr. Haussman sees the question as one of degree. "I don't see this change -- provided it's not permanent -- as anything that negative. It could be kind of refreshing. It all depends on how far it's taken."

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