Special-interest lobbies prepare to defend their 'turf'
Washington — Lobby groups under attack are showing a greater sophistication and inventiveness in their responses to the Reagan revolution here. The interest groups most affected -- environmental, health, education, and women's organizations -- are going to unusual lengths to cope with impending changes. Satellite hookups with members, massive and detailed counterbudgets, and new "super coalitions" are among the defensive weapons being deployed.
The result promises to be more bite and clarity in the months ahead in national debate --will likely bear the burden of Reagan spending, tax, and regulatory reforms.
It is not the bottom line of spending cuts alone that troubles educators, environmentalists, and other groups whose special interests have been targeted for major changes. It is the broader thrust of proposed changes: in relaxing federal clean-air standards, in the effect of possible tuition tax credits on public schools, and in the likelihood of a setback for women if they bear the brunt of welfare funding curbs.
The National Education Association last week held its first-ever national satellite hookup session with state and local education officials in all 50 states. Staged in time for members to meet homecoming congressmen for the Easter recess, the NEA call warned of a $4.5 billion slash in federal aid to the states.
"The Reagan revolution," says NEA spokesman Robert Gruenberg, "means the beginning of the breakdown of public education. It means a 25-to-40 percent cut in revenues in some localities. Over 200,000 public school employees could lose their jobs."
The challenge posed by the Reagan budget is pushing the NEA and its "rival" education union, the AFL-CIO's American Federation of Teachers, closer together. Both have joined an umbrella education budget coalition under the AFL-CIO's direction. Smaller coalitions are forming on issues like the defense of family-planning programs. Some 25 nationa organizations have joined forces to defend targeted services like pregnancy counciling for teen-agers, which could disappear under block grant changes for state aid.
Family-planning backers see some hope for success in a split in Republican ranks. "We have moderate Republicans who want to support block grants in terms of states rights," says Susan Cohen, a spokesperson for the family-planning coalition. "But many conservatives want family planning to remain a categorical program so they can impose restrictions on it."
Environmental groups have made some of the most rapid strides in organizing to cope with the Reagan offensive. Conservation groups came up with their own alternate budget that would have reduced the budget deficit by $1.7 billion. They also have formed subcoalitions to deal with separate issues like the Clean Air Act, public lands, and toxic chemicals reforms.
"They've learned from us how to do the grass-roots work," says Sierra Club spokeswoman Polly Freeman, describing the Reagan team's success at gaining broad-based election support. "Now we have to learn from them how to do the sophisticated organizational work."
The environmental coalition had been active through the 1975 and 1977 fights over the Clean Air Act, says Richard Ayres of the National Resource Defense Council. "But it's much stronger now in terms of how many organizations are involved and how much effort is being put in."
"It's broader, with labor membership and the public health community joining in," Mr. Ayres says. "It's easier to get coalitions together now that it was before. The Reagan administration's extreme positions tend to erase differences that might have seemed large earlier.
Even the Coalition for Health Funding --comprised of 62 health, union, and professional organizations -- which has fought many a battle in its 10 years of existence, finds itself reaching harder than ever before to cope with the Reagan challenge. "This has been a tough year for us already," says Fred Fedeli, the coalition's executive director. "It's been unique." The health coalition, like environmentalists, also for the first time has come out with a budget for its area of interest for the next fiscal year.
But it may be women's groups that are generating the greatest wrath over proposed Reagan reforms, and, hence, they may make the most radical changes in their organizations. Women's rights leaders are talking of a new "super coalition" to carry their battle through the Reagan years ahead.
"This year's budget fight is the most severe challenge we've ever faced," says Janyce Katz of the National Women's Political Caucus, which is playing a lead role in a coalition of 42 women's-issue organizations lobbying to protest the Reagan budget.
Women's rights activists see an antifemale bias in Reagan policies, Ms. Katz says, noting that two-thirds of those on welfare are wom en and children.