CHAPTER 3 The Office of Citizen

 

“In a democracy, the highest office is the office of citizen.”
— Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter

Class Day, Harvard University, 1981. Ralph Nader stands hunched over the podium. A hushed assemblage of parents, students, professors and university administrators listen intently as one of Harvard’s own returns to speak his mind to an institution so large and overconfident, he jokes, that “one can become engulfed by waves of ethnocentrism.”

 

For this army of Harvard graduates about to enter the moral narcosis of the Reagan years, Nader issues a provocative challenge: “How many of you want to become leaders in the achievement of greater justice on earth? If not, why not? Could it be that the nation is suffering from an excess of leadership? Or is it more likely that our times reflect a massive escape from leadership responsibilities? With so much human activity conducted within and between larger and larger private and public bureaucracies, is it any wonder that the ‘I only work here’ syndrome has become an epidemic?”

Harvard students….a homeowners group in suburban Maryland….a conference of anti-nuclear activists….the late-night viewers of the Johnny Carson Show — at each whistlestop the message is essentially the same: Citizenship matters. “Can you imagine what would happen if people would turn off the TV and spend just ten hours a week exercising their citizenship?” an incredulous Nader proposes. His is a continuous campaign for citizenship, a call for Americans to dare to use the democratic freedoms that people in other countries are literally dying for.

That has, in fact, been the powerful mainspring of Nader and the consumer movement — to take citizenship and democratic self-governance seriously. “There can be no daily democracy without daily citizenship,” exhorts Nader, trying to give civics-book abstractions a human face. “If we do not exercise our civic rights, who will? If we do not perform our civic duties, who can? The fiber of a just society in pursuit of happiness is a thinking, active citizenry. That means you.” By demonstrating that an individual armed with facts, fortitude and creative zeal can actually achieve important reforms, Nader insists on the possibilities of democratic citizenship in a society dominated by institutional giants — multinational corporations, government bureaucracies, labor unions, bar associations, universities.

If the very idea sounds somewhat naive and implausible, that reaction is, in a sense, precisely his point: “We don’t grow up learning how to be a citizen,” Nader told the Boston Globe in 1989. “If you want to learn how to dance, you go to an Arthur Murray clinic. There should be citizen training clinics.” Active citizenship is not just good for the country, Nader argues, it’s good for the soul. It’s fun. “What could be more fun than pushing the auto and highway safety law into creation, watching more than 100,000 lives be saved and over a million injuries prevented, in the last 20 years? What possibly could compare with that? Free tickets to the Boston Garden?”

The rhetoric is inspiring. But what do the institutions of “public citizenship” look like? How have they worked? What issues have they brought to the forefront of national politics, law, regulation and popular culture? It is instructive to look at one of Nader’s earliest experiments in public citizenship, The Congress Project, and its successor organization, Public Citizen’s Congress Watch.

Congress: A World of Protocol, Alcohol and Geritol

At the beginning of the 1970s, few Americans really understood much about Congress, partly because its leaders really preferred it that way. Secrecy was a way of life, and legislators found it eminently useful. It allowed Members of Congress to vote on legislation in committee without the public ever holding them accountable. It allowed them to hide the sources of their special-interest campaign financing. Public ignorance allowed the archaic system of congressional rules to flourish, along with infamous abuses of the filibuster. It allowed the antiquated seniority system to thrive, also, enabling pampered, insulated patriarchs to derail consideration of urgently needed legislation. Congress meekly followed the lead of the White House and industry lobbies, and rarely showed independent leadership. For all these reasons, Congress had become “the great American default” of American government, Nader charged in 1971.

That year, flush from the success of several “Nader’s Raiders” books, Nader took aim at the people’s branch of the federal government by announcing a comprehensive examination of Congress, to be called The Ralph Nader Congress Project/Citizens Look at Congress. The centerpiece of the project would be profiles of 484 members of the House and Senate (lame-duck legislators were not studied), based on personal interviews, research in each legislator’s home district, and replies to a questionnaire with 633 questions, many relating to campaign financing. The project would also shine a penetrating spotlight on six key congressional committees with book-length reports, describing how they worked and didn’t work.

As in so many Nader projects, the keynote for The Congress Project was accountability. If Congress is supposed to be accountable to the people, why not assess its performance to the people? It was a simple idea — with a monstrously complicated execution. The Congress Project, headed by the unflappable, prolific Robert Fellmeth (now a law professor at the University of San Diego) and former congressional aide Joan Claybrook (now President of Public Citizen), was a huge undertaking by any measure. Nader himself called it “probably the most comprehensive and detailed study of the Congress since its establishment.” At its height, the effort involved more than 500 volunteers in the states, about 350 students in Washington, D.C., working feverishly in cramped quarters, earning very modest sums, and synthesizing vast amounts of material in a heroic effort to meet tight deadlines. The amount of printed material ultimately generated by the Project totalled some 21,000 pages. Despite staff complaints about working conditions and carping by academics about research methods, the Project clearly succeeded in exposing the little-known world of “protocol, alcohol and Geritol.” The institutional life of Congress and its folkways suddenly became a major national issue.

Much of The Congress Project’s impact stemmed from the success of Who Runs Congress?, a paperback book that Bantam Publishing chief Oscar Dystel had suggested to Nader. The book was a brisk, tough-minded, witty overview of Congress, drawing upon Congress Project research and other materials, both original and derivative. Written in six weeks by Mark J. Green (now president of the Democracy Project, a New York City-based policy institute), James Fallows (now Washington editor of The Atlantic) and David Zwick (now director of the Clean Water Action Project), the book took off like a rocket. For the month of October 1972, Who Runs Congress? was #2 on the New York Times bestseller list (the list then appeared monthly, not weekly), and was #1 for the month of November 1972. Eventually going through four different editions and print runs of more than one million copies, it remains the best-selling book ever written on Congress.

While it is difficult to measure the impact of any single book, there is no question that Who Runs Congress? helped change the climate of public opinion toward Congress and Congress’ own perception of itself. The book was widely read among the incoming batch of legislators in 1974, the famous class of “Watergate Babies” that included 47 freshmen Democrats. Now that congressional folly had been given wide public exposure and a new class of hell-raising Democrats streamed into office (“My God, reinforcements have arrived,” quipped Bella Abzug), Congress was never riper for reform. Fortunately, The Congress Project had spawned a new corps of hard-headed citizen activists ready to seize the moment.

Few veterans of The Congress Project were more eager to plunge into the fray than Joan Claybrook — energetic, brash, politically savvy. Claybrook combined the formal charm of a Goucher graduate with the bravado of a street fighter. “We had no idea that Joan would have a career,” her father once told a reporter. “She was brought up to be a lovely Edwardian lady; but I guess they’ve all gone out of style.” It was while working as an aide to one-term Congressman James Mackey in 1966 that Claybrook first met Nader, then lobbying hard for the auto safety bill. Having acquired an expertise and interest in auto safety, Claybrook went on to become special assistant to the first director of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In 1970, however, Nader’s crusades lured her to citizen action, and she became one of the leaders of The Congress Project. After its completion Nader asked Claybrook to head up Congress Watch, a new watchdog group that would lobby Congress and agitate for the public interest.

It was a “kitchen table” operation, Claybrook recalls, which required scrappy, creative lobbyists to use whatever resources they could muster: beat-up manual typewriters, an old mimeograph machine, volunteer typists. In November 1974, shortly after Congress Watch moved into its first headquarters on Capitol Hill at 133 C Street, S.E. — an old nunnery next door to California Representative Pete Stark’s house — it seized the occasion of the first Critical Mass conference to sponsor one of its few receptions for official Washington, featuring home-cooking by volunteers, of course. When a crowd of 500 reporters, legislators, congressional staff and conference-goers showed up, future FTC Chairman Michael Pertshuck was enlisted to wash lettuce for the hordes, and a harried Joan Claybrook sent her casseroles next door to bake in the Congressman’s oven.

Congress Watch became a new jewel in the crown of Public Citizen, a federation of advocacy groups Nader had founded in 1971 when he also established, with Alan B. Morrison, the Litigation Group (see Chapter 6), and with Dr. Sidney M. Wolfe, the Health Research Group (see Chapter 7). Public Citizen was launched by two mass mailings which garnered some 62,000 contributors and more than $1 million — a phenomenal response.

What would distinguish Public Citizen from the raft of other single-issue public interest lobbies that sprang up in the early 1970s was its simultaneous activism in multiple forums — Congress, federal agencies, the courts, the news media, and selected congressional districts. Each group had its own director, policy apparatus and public identity, but the groups’ loose affiliation under the Public Citizen umbrella gave them valuable synergies. By sharing a central administrative and fundraising system, the groups were free to focus on policy activism. Equally important, the technical experts, lobbyists, litigators, citizen organizers and journalists in each group could collaborate freely with each other, making it easier to follow an issue from its first stirrings in the press through legislation, agency rulemaking and litigation in court.

Many of the novel techniques of citizen action were born under the auspices of Public Citizen groups, particularly Congress Watch. For example, new models for an engaged citizenry were proposed in A Public Citizen’s Action Manual, a 1973 “cookbook” for activists written by Donald K. Ross, a key figure in the founding of the campus-based Public Interest Research Groups (see Chapter 8 ). The book, distributed to thousands of Public Citizen members, gave step-by-step instructions on “how to detect and correct fraudulent repair practices,” “how to do a toy safety survey,” “how to do a bank interest survey,” among other blueprints for action. The epilogue to Who Runs Congress? featured a similar citizen guidebook, “Taking On Congress: A Primer for Citizen Action.” The goal of these and numerous other Nader “action manuals” was to call into being, through appeals to conscience, idealism, outrage and public spiritedness, an independent political force: the vigilant citizen.

The inspiration came directly from Thomas Jefferson, who had written, “I know of no safer depository of the ultimate powers of society but the people themselves.” But Jefferson, of course, could not have envisioned how monied special interests, official secrecy, procedural complexities and the brute size of the nation would erode the sinews of government accountability. Nor could James Madison, author of the famous Federalist No. 10 essay, have predicted how competing special-interest factions might not yield the public good, contrary to his predictions. The creation of a citizens’ lobby to represent the people as a whole — “the public interest” — was a bold, innovative development in American politics at the time. It represented a creative attempt to reclaim Jefferson’s faith in “the people themselves.” John Gardner, a former Secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, would have a similar idea in 1970, when he founded Common Cause, a good government lobby that focussed primarily on procedural reforms such as campaign finance reform and government ethics.

More than anything else, the new citizen-lobbyists were political entrepreneurs. Since citizen lobbyists often do not have the money and easy access to legislators that their industry opponents do, their success depends more on ingenuity and grit — particularly in marshalling persuasive facts, mobilizing grassroots support and obtaining media coverage. In Giant Killers, his 1986 book on the strategies of citizen lobbying, former FTC Chairman Michael Pertshuck (and now co-director of the Advocacy Institute) described five essential components of successful citizen lobbying campaigns: “1) a broad ‘outside’ grassroots movement or its proxy, an organized constituency; 2) ‘inside’ leadership, committed congressional and congressional staff leadership; 3) a network of supportive policy professionals/experts; 4) alert and sympathetic media; and 5) professionally sophisticated lobbyists.” In the late 1960s, Nader helped invent these categories and devise new ways to influence Congress.

Many obscure provisions in landmark federal laws are monuments to citizen lobbyists who skillfully injected them into the legislative process. For example, during the framing of the 1966 auto safety legislation, Nader was adamant that the rules for participating in agency rulemakings be informal. If formal procedural rules governed, the only parties who could afford to participate in agency rulemakings (because of the need to hire technical experts and attorneys) would be the regulated industries; citizens would be frozen out of the process and industry could use legalistic subterfuges to delay needed regulations for years. Nader prevailed in his quest for informal rules, a victory that proved to be a critical precedent. When Congress was later deciding how to structure the Environmental Protection Agency (1970), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (1970), and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (1972), it relied upon the precedent of the 1966 auto safety law and mandated informal rulemaking procedures.

Another statutory provision that Nader helped enact into law was the “California option” of the Clean Air Act of 1970, which allows individual states to avoid federal preemption by setting more stringent requirements for pollution-control technology. That provision, used only by California for years, may soon be used by a consortium of New England states to require Detroit to clean up the automobile emissions of cars sold in those states. This provision has also made it easier for the federal Environmental Protection Agency to follow California’s example and mandate stronger controls nationwide.

Lobbyist Nancy Drabble, the director of Congress Watch from 1982 to 1986, recalls how she was able to force Congress to take up new pesticide safety reform legislation by forging a creative linkage of issues. Upon discovering that the pesticide industry was pushing for an extension of the patent term for its products — a blatant, unjustified government give-away — Drabble was able to convince enough members of the House Judiciary Committee to freeze the patent bill as a way to prod the House Agriculture Committee to introduce and approve a stringent pesticide safety bill. Although this fragile linkage of issues ultimately fell apart in 1986, Drabble’s creative lobbying had forced Congress and the pesticide industry to confront the long-neglected issue. In 1988, the momentum from the first campaign helped propel a more modest pesticide reform bill through Congress.

Achieving such statutory victories requires a diverse range of lobbying skills: a sensitivity to the public mood, a knowledge of legal draftsmanship, savvy press relations, a nose for the opponent’s vulnerabilities, skill at grassroots organizing, a good rapport with congressional staff, and an appreciation for the quirks of individual legislators. Over the years, Congress Watch lobbyists have honed these skills and worked at feeding stories to friendly reporters; exposing the anti-consumer behavior of key legislators in their home districts; staging rallies of constituents affected by pending legislation; finding respected sponsors in Congress to shepherd bills through committee; and navigating the procedural complexities of Congress. If there is one overarching principle behind the many tactics of citizen lobbying, it is fierce persistence. As Nader once put it, “You’ve got to keep the opposition off balance. Once you get them tumbling, you can’t let up….”

One trademark tactic pioneered by Congress Watch has been its reports correlating legislators’ voting records with their campaign contributions. The goal is to show legislators’ captivity to special interests and to embarrass them into changing their minds. Lobbyist Jay Angoff once used the technique effectively by identifying which Members of Congress opposing mandatory warranty disclosures for used cars had received money from the used-car industry. He also got a permit to set up a mock used-car lot in front of the Capitol, complete with junk cars. In order to get to the House floor, embarrassed legislators were forced to walk past the demonstrators and a gauntlet of TV news cameras. While lobbying for air bag safety protection in cars, Joan Claybrook once arranged to have crash-damaged cars parked next to the Capitol. The owners of the cars, standing nearby, had survived the crashes only because the cars had been equipped with experimental air bags.

It is impossible to recount here the scores of legislative campaigns that Congress Watch has waged over the years. In general, Congress Watch becomes involved when consumer or taxpayer interests are at stake in pending legislation. For example, Congress Watch helped develop the public participation funding program adopted as part of the 1974 legislation dealing with the FTC. Congress Watch also worked to pass the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act of 1975 which made it easier for consumers to force auto companies to repair or replace lemon automobiles. And it has opposed a variety of corporate subsidies, government boondoggles, and corporate tax loopholes, and pushed for deregulation of airlines and trucking (finally enacted in 1978 ), a bank for consumer cooperatives (enacted in 1977) and a proposal to create a consumer protection agency (narrowly defeated in 1978 ). Congress Watch has also been the driving force behind new regulatory standards for pesticides and food safety (1988 ), auto safety (1974), auto fuel efficiency (1975), medical devices (1976), consumer product safety (1981), toxic chemical control (1976) and toxic waste cleanup (the Superfund law, 1980 and 1986).

The consumer movement has also helped enact important procedural reforms that make government more open, fair-minded and accountable. Congress Watch, for example, has been one of the leading advocates for open government, helping push through the landmark Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 1974, which made government information more accessible to any citizen or anyone else in the world who requests it. It also helped enact ethics bills, such as the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, which curbed the abuses of the “revolving door” (in which former government officials lobby their old colleagues), mandated “sunshine laws” (which open up government meetings and records to the public) and protected whistleblowing by government employees; and the Corrupt Foreign Practices Act of 1977, which prohibited corporate executives from using bribes in order to obtain foreign business.

One of Congress Watch’s most enduring priorities has been campaign finance reform. Nader and Congress Watch were among the first to document the corrupting effects of big-money campaign contributions and agitate for reform. The first fruits of reform was the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1974, which repealed the many loopholes of the Corrupt Practices Act of 1925 and required disclosure of campaign receipts and expenditures. A year later, in the wake of the Watergate scandal and disclosures of the Nixon campaign’s grossly unethical fundraising schemes, new amendments to the law were passed. As with so many reforms, this one offered an unpalatable trade-off. Citizen activists were pleased with the law’s new limit of $1,000 per election as the amount that any individual could contribute to a candidate for federal office, and with the new scheme of public financing for presidential candidates. But the price exacted for these reforms was no public financing of congressional candidates and a sanctioning of political action committees, or PACs. In the end, Congress Watch opposed, organized labor and business supported, and Common Cause accepted these reforms.

Since then, many congressional races have been soiled by PAC money, and political action committees have grown from less than 600 in 1972 to over 4,000 today. PAC expenditures have grown from $19 million in 1972 to over $150 million today. The infusions of special-interest cash have undermined the importance of citizen participation in campaigns; made campaigns more dependent on TV advertising; and sown cynicism about the entire political process. More to the point, they have allowed monied special interests to hijack the legislative process, helping to thwart needed reforms in environmental law, health care, banking, family issues and dozens of other issues.

The current campaign finance system has grown into a virtually foolproof scheme for incumbents to fend off challengers, making the democratic process a hoax. In the 1989-90 election cycle, the average Senate incumbent raised $4 million in campaign funds (or an average of nearly $13,000 a week, every week, for six years!), versus the average challenger’s $1.7 million. House incumbents raised an average of nearly $450,000, versus the average challenger’s $110,000.

Incumbent stockpiling of post-election campaign funds (the average House member held an average of $188,554 in 1990) also heighten the wall of invulnerability. Despite widespread public disgust at Congress in the 1990 campaigns, incumbents held such commanding financial advantages that an astonishing 96.5 percent of them were returned to office.

Campaign finance reform suddenly became a ripe issue in the late 1980s as ethics scandals engulfed Speaker of the House James Wright, House Majority Leader Tony Coehlo, and the notorious “Keating Five” — the five Senators who, in an apparent payoff for campaign contributions, tried to stop federal regulators from taking action against Charles Keating’s troubled savings and loan institutions. The corrosive influence of PACs had become so serious that even President Bush and many Republicans called for modest reforms in 1989, creating a prime opportunity for citizen groups to finish the reforms begun twenty years earlier.

To seize the momentum, Public Citizen, Ralph Nader and the U.S. PIRG — with the help of Citizen Action, Common Cause and the League of Women Voters — organized a massive national effort to push through a series of congressional reforms dealing with campaign financing, privately financed junkets, speaking honoraria and other sources of outside income, and pay raises.

Campaign finance. In the late 1980s, by organizing a network of more than 400 organizations and building a grassroots network in 26 states, Congress Watch resurrected an issue that pols and pundits had dismissed as unnecessary and politically dead — the need for public financing of campaigns. “Unless you cap spending and replace private campaign money with an untainted alternative, special interests will continue to dominate the legislative process,” said David Eppler, a campaign finance expert with Congress Watch. The estimated cost of a system to finance all the candidates in a national election 100 percent is $600 million — about the cost of a single B-2 “Stealth” bomber, or less than $3 per taxpayer.

By 1991, the Senate seemed to move closer to enacting reform legislation, featuring spending limits for both Senate primary and general elections; some degree of public funding for general election campaigns, for those candidates who accept spending limits; a strong yet constitutional limit on PAC donations to candidates; and strong limits on “soft money” — donations that evade federal election law by going to state political parties, which then uses the money to indirectly helps federal candidates.

Privately financed Junkets. Another tactic by which special-interests try to curry favor with Members of Congress is privately funded travel. Dozens of industry trade associations underwrite luxurious getaway trips to such places as Palm Springs, Jamaica and swank hotels in Chicago and New York. Of the nearly 4,000 free trips taken by members of the House in 1989 and 1990, two-thirds were paid for by corporations or corporate-sponsored trade associations which were often lobbying specific legislation affecting their economic interests. These same business groups doled out more than $3.5 million in honoraria.

The trips purport to “educate” Representatives and Senators about the particular problems of an industry. In practice, however, the junketing is simply a way for well-heeled lobbying groups to gain special access to influential members of Congress. In such reports as “They Love to Fly…And It Shows!” Congress Watch brings these little-known congressional practices to the general public, with the hope of shaming members of Congress and stimulating ethics reforms.

The Congressional “Salary Grab” and Other Perks. It has long been a conviction of Nader and the consumer movement that Congress as an institution is far too insulated to truly understand the problems of the American people. Its members travel in a cocoon of privileges. One of the most powerful symbols of Congress’ self-serving, anti-democratic insensitivities is its many furtive attempts to raise its members’ salaries — which already are many times that of the average American.

Under the Constitution, members of Congress have the authority to vote themselves raises, on the theory that voters will hold them accountable for their actions. But since 1969 Congress has raised its members’ salaries several times in ways deliberately designed to evade public scrutiny. One of its most dubious innovations in this regard was a nine-member commission whose recommendations for salary increases would take effect automatically unless disapproved by Congress. The beauty of this scheme was that members of Congress needed only to acquiesce quietly to the panel’s recommendations in order to receive a higher salary; there was no need for an affirmative vote, on the record, which might prove to be an embarrassing disability at election time.

In 1969 Congress first took advantage of this backdoor method of raising its members’ salaries, from $30,000 to $42,000. This process yielded another whopping salary increase in 1977, as members’ salaries rose 29 percent, from $44,600 to $57,500. After Nader mounted a major campaign against the “salary grab” that year, Congress changed the law and required that henceforth each chamber of Congress would make an on-the-record vote of any pay raises (a deal struck only after members gave themselves an automatic annual cost-of-living salary increase, which itself was attached to an emergency funding bill that could not be easily vetoed).

By the late 1980s, members of Congress were earning $89,500 a year, more than five times the annual income of the average American worker. Since 1981, they had received $28,838 in salary increases — a 48 percent increase — more than enough to keep pace with inflation, along with automatic 5 percent cost-of-living increases and ample pension increases. When Congress sought a 51 percent pay hike in 1989, Nader mobilized more than 200 radio talk shows to take up the issue. Hundreds of thousands of irate citizens bombarded Congress with their complaints, forcing chastened members to back off — for the time being.

After brooding over how to ram through a pay raise without trigging a public outcry, the Senate in 1991 — without holding any public hearing or recorded vote — attached a pay raise to another bill and rasied its members’ salaries to $125,100 a year. Months earlier, Representatives had received their own pay raise, to the same $125,100 level. At a time when Congress was slashing the federal budget by $50 billion — and when individual members were stiffing congressional restaurants for huge bills and bouncing checks without penalty in congressional banks — the pay raise was yet another confirmation of an elitist, insensitive and unaccountable Congress. Through a newly formed Congressional Accountability Project, Nader is now agitating for a repeal of the 1991 pay hikes.

The Consumer Movement During the Carter Years

With the election of Jimmy Carter as President in 1976, over 60 consumer activists moved into positions of power in the new administration. Michael Pertshuck, one of the first consumer advocates in the 1960s and a Senate committee staff director, became chairman of the FTC. Susan King, the Washington Director of the National Committee for an Effective Congress, became commissioner of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Joan Claybrook left Congress Watch to become administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. And Carol Foreman, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America, became assistant secretary of Food and Consumer Services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

These and dozens of other consumer advocates brought new leadership to moribund agencies dominated by regulated industries. They instituted sweeping new safety and health programs; improved the scientific bases of agency decision-making; started new consumer information programs; and reached out to help new constituencies participate in the regulatory process. “One of the biggest achievements was getting consumer activists into government jobs,” said Esther Peterson, consumer advisor to Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Carter and now a lobbyist at the United Nations for the International Organization of Consumers Unions. “They became known and recognized as in the consumer corner. They became trusted people in the public mind.”

But other currents were at work during this period as well. Business groups had mobilized in the 1970s to counter the consumer movement. They had formed hundreds of political action committees to help unseat pro-consumer Senators and Representatives, and to shape legislation. Some 400 corporate headquarters moved to Washington, D.C., during the 1970s in order to better influence government policymaking. New right-wing and business-financed think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute began to produce more articles, treatises and public relations materials to challenge the consumer movement’s achievements. The counter-mobilization prompted Nader to quip, “The citizens’ movement creates jobs. We have been so successful that Washington law firms have hired literally hundreds of additional lawyers in the 1970s to oppose our activities.”

One watershed in the corporate counterattack was the 1978 battle over the Nader-Public Citizen proposal to establish a Consumer Protection Agency to represent the consumer interest before all federal agencies. “It was a cheap [$15 million a year] but very important innovation,” Nader recalled, “because it was an agency that had no regulatory power but could intervene before other agencies and take them to court for not enforcing the laws, for violating their own procedures or not releasing reports. It was basically holding the agencies to their own declared standards. It could’ve had an enormous leverage effect. The problem was, it was too good of an idea.”

Industry mobilized a massive coalition to defeat the proposal and President Carter, despite campaigning as the consumer’s friend, did not put the full force of his presidential prestige and power behind the legislation. Because the new agency would cost the average taxpayer only a nickel, Congress Watch mounted a “Consumer Nickel Brigade,” prompting hundreds of thousands of people to mail nickels to their Representatives. Even with the massive show of public support and business’ miserable 16 percent approval rating at the time (according to pollster Lou Harris), the Consumer Protection Agency lost by a narrow margin in the House.

The defeat would prove to be a precursor of an even more forbidding political climate. In January 1981, Ronald Reagan stepped into the White House and stocked the government’s regulatory agencies with industry representatives profoundly hostile to the laws they were supposed to administer. Although the news media often noted the consumer movement’s declining influence during the Reagan years, Nader retorted, “It’s like saying to a golfer who comes in at 80 — now we’ve got a new golf course for you. It’s called the Amazon jungle.” With sharpened machetes, citizen activists in the 1980s hacked away at the thick, fast-growing underbrush of anti-consumer initiatives. Joan Claybrook, with new expertise acquired during her four years in government, returned to become President of Public Citizen in 1982.

Dozens of books, reports and articles attacking Reagan’s anti-consumer abuses and secrecy policies were generated during this period. Among the more significant ones were: Reagan’s Ruling Class, by Ronald Brownstein and Nina Easton (Pantheon, 1982), which offered detailed profiles of the administration’s top 100 officials; Retreat from Safety, by Joan Claybrook and the Staff of Public Citizen (Pantheon, 1984), which documented the administration’s wholesale attacks on health and safety protections; Inside the Trojan Horse, by Anne Urban (Presidential Accountability Group, 1983), an investigation of David Stockman and his performance as Director of the Office of Management and Budget; “Reagan on the Road,” a devastating report on the administration’s brazen non-enforcement of auto and highway safety laws; Public Citizen’s Open Government Project, which showed how Reagan officials were destroying crucial information programs and erecting new secrecy barriers at six key agencies; and Freedom from Harm, a 1986 account by David Bollier and Joan Claybrook of the immense historical benefits of health, safety and environmental regulation, then under extreme attack by the Reagan administration.

Citizenship Begins at Home

One lesson driven home by the Reagan years was the importance of citizen action in local communities. The identical insight had motivated the founding of the campus-based Public Interest Research Groups a decade earlier (see Chapter 8 ), but the Reagan administration’s rampages were a startling reminder of where the most significant political transformations really begin. “After a while, the trail leads back to the local community, more than I think people at the grassroots realize,” Nader said. “The shaping of the national government is a definite function of the energy and quality of local citizenship.”

One model of local citizenship that Nader hopes to nurture and replicate is the Winsted Project, a blueprint for mobilizing citizen participation in local government. A frequent visitor to his hometown, Winsted, Connecticut, Nader studied the deficiencies of his town government and put forward a model for greater citizen participation in its affairs. His report offered thirty recommendations to help citizens deal with higher taxes, reckless development, aging infrastructure, and similar municipal problems.

A key proposal of the Winsted Project was that citizens hire a “Community Lawyer” to educate people about their rights, help them exercise their rights, and go to court if necessary to protect them. Since January 1989, Charlene LaVoie has been Winsted’s Community Attorney, serving as a citizen watchdog, ombudsman, facilitator, initiator, educator and advocate. She has advised citizens about the governmental and legal processes; helped citizens fight proposed rules allowing disposal of low-level radioactive waste in communities’ regular waste streams; initiated a town ordinance prohibiting the use of polystyrene foam and polyvinyl chloride in food containers used in the community; and published a series of pamphlets on how to use government (freedom of information, the right of initiative, home rule, etc.); among other actions. The goal of the Community Lawyer, writes LaVoie, is to demystify the law and government and in so doing, “enable citizens to reclaim the democratic process.”

This fundamental goal was behind Ralph Nader’s support of the “Poletown” neighborhood of Detroit. In the early 1980s, General Motors decided it wanted to raze 465 acres in the middle of Detroit to build a new high-tech Cadillac plant. GM promised that the would bring 6,000 new jobs to the neighborhood, an economically depressed area where generations of Polish immigrants had settled. Despite the vigorous protests of Poletown’s 4,200 residents, the Detroit city government, the United Auto Workers, the Catholic archdiocese and the local media all rallied behind GM’s plan to destroy Poletown, even though the plant, in a scaled-down land plan, could have coexisted with the neighborhood.

Although Poletown residents, by tradition, were culturally conservative — paying homage to family, the Catholic Church, military service and union membership — they soon became radicalized as the chief institutions of their community betrayed them and threw their support behind General Motors. What followed was an intense, sometimes violent battle to evict the residents of Poletown from their homes, churches and businesses. The controversy received little national attention until Ralph Nader entered the fray in early 1981, when he sent a small team of activists and advisors to help the residents of Poletown fight back. “My principal concern,” Nader told one reporter, “is that General Motors Corporation, the second richest corporation in the world, makes the decisions in the city of Detroit, not the city government.”

After months of legal battling and public protests — a police SWAT team ultimately had to storm the Catholic Church where defiant residents made their last stand — the city of Detroit prevailed. It won court approval to use its power of eminent domain to raze the neighborhood to make way for GM. Once built, ironically, the new auto plant produced only half the promised number of jobs and was even closed down on many occasions because demand for Cadillacs and other large models was so slack. The GM-City Hall conspiracy to destroy Poletown inspired Jeanie Wylie to produce a film, “Poletown Lives!” and, with the help of Nader’s Corporate Accountability Research Group and Essential Information, a book about the entire episode, “Poletown: Community Betrayed.”

For Nader, the story of Poletown is not “just history” but a vivid illustration of what happens when community institutions — corporations, local government, powerful unions, and others — become callously unaccountable to ordinary citizens. Rather than passively accept as the inevitable price of progress, however, Poletown residents resisted to the bitter end and managed, in Jeanie Wylie’s words, “to force the powers to expose the full brutality of which they were capable.”

At root, Nader wants to revive the culture of localism. He wants his hometown to appoint a poet laureate and hopes to enlist local community college faculty and students to write histories of the town. “What I’d like, ideally,” said Nader, “is for Winsted to be the functioning residence for some of the best ideas all around the country, and have them all in one town. That way, they’ll have a synergistic effect, a big morale effect, a big media effect, and people will say, look, it can be done anywhere. You’ve just got to roll up your sleeves and do it.”

It is fitting that when Nader founded Public Citizen in 1971, he selected the following quote by a Adlai Stevenson: to grace the first annual report: “Patriotism is not a short and frenzied burst of emotion but the long and steady dedication of a lifetime.” With undiminished faith and energy, it is the message Nader continues to share with college students, the cynics in Washington, the local TV news reporters, and the townspeople of Winsted: “You’ve just got to roll up your sleeves and do it.”

Categorized: History

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