Washington Monthly:The best and worst of public interest groups; from lifting up the poor to shaking down the elderly.

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Washington Monthly, March 1988 v20 n2 p19(8)

The best and worst of public interest groups; from lifting up the poor to shaking down the elderly.

Rita McWilliams

Twenty-five years ago a young Lebanese-American set up shop in Washington, D.C. Like those of most young entrepreneurs, his was a shoe-string operation. He became famous when the press discovered that his adversary, one of the nation's largest and wealthiest corporations, had sent a private eye out searching for ways to discredit him.

Aquarter century has passed since Ralph Nader began his successful crusade against General Motors's deathtrap, the Corvair. Before Nader was finished, he had revolutionized the auto industry, instituting the use of shatter-resistant glass, shock-absorbing bumpers, collapseing steering wheels, and seat belts.

But more importantly, he had changed the way Washington works.

His example activated citizens across the nation to fight the corporate world, the oppressive politician, the high-paid influence peddler. Today more than 2,000 groups champion a variety of causes "in the public interest." Public interest victories have put nonsmoking seats on commerical airplanes and nutrition labels on soup cans and cereal boxes. They have put smoke detectors in apartment buildings, flame-resistant clothing on children,and cleaner air in the cities and countryside.

After 25 years, this industry retains a powerful, if little-examined, position in the policy-making process. The influence of the public interest industry, and the inevitable conflicts about what constitutes "the public interest," invites a scrutiny of its work. What are the best public interest groups? What are the worst?

The manner in which public interst groups go about their work is particularly important, since they usually fight opponents with more money and manpower. Public interest groups have to rely on powers of moral persuasion. They have to be savvy about creating new consituencies for their cause and mobilzing public opinion.

At their best, public interest groups are fair and ethical; their strategies are smart, and their goals are worthy. They are intellectually honest. They use statistics to their advantage, but without lying. Their work challenges the public to think, and sometimes challenges even the groups that fund them.

The worst public interest groups alienate the public rather than rally it to their cause. They use deceptive tactics that exploit the public's fears or hide their true intent. They enrich themselves at their members' expense. With moral credibility the industry's most precious capital, the work of the worst public interest groups threatens all those who share the public interest label.

It was not possible to examine the work of each of the 2,000 public interest groups in Washington. The following list was drawn from interviews with reporters, lobbyists, congressional aides, political scientists, and public interest leaders. It shows the kind of work to which public interest groups should aspire, and the kind which it should seek to avoid. The successes of the best and the disappointments of the worst offer important lessons for those committed to the public's true interests.

The Best

*Citizens for Tax justice: Groups that take on rich and powerful adversaries have to find ways to promote their cause and create new constituencies. Citizens for Tax Justice did just that. The group's determined research found that some of the nation's largest corporations paid no taxes. CTJ's savvy and fearless promotion of its findings, even when doing so made its own board members uncomfortable, helped create outrage that cut across ideological lines. This work helped set the stage for one of the most dramatic defeats that special interest groups have ever suffered: the 1986 overhaul of the fedreal tax code.

As a result, most Americans will pay significantly lower taxes this year--an average of $531 less for families earning between $20,000 and $50,000--and six million of the nation's poorest families have been removed from the tax rolls altogether.

CTJ was founded in 1979 in reaction to California's Proposition 13, which cut the state's property taxes and, with them, government services. With backing from labor unions, CTJ's original aim was to stop similar movements that would lay off government employees and cut services elsewhere.

The group's role in tax reform began in 1984 with Robert McIntyre, a Nader-trained lawyer who projects the image of a hard-nosed investigative reporter. Smart and serious, McIntyre seems more comfortable prowling document rooms than buttonholing legislators in hallways. He spent the summer of 1984 extracting tax data from the annual reports of the naton's largest businesses. McIntyre found that 128 large corporations had avoided paying federal income taxes in at least one of the three previous years, despite billions in profits. Then he named names. When CTJ issued a report called "The Top Ten Corporate Freeloaders," the media couldn't resist. Newspapers across the country highlighted stories about freeloaders like General Electric and Anheuser-Busch. Editors at The New York Times liked the part about defense contractors so much they ran it twice, by two different reporters.

"To actually attach names to those who avoided taxes was powerful," says Alan Murray, chief economics correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and author of a book on the 1986 Tax Reform Act. Unlike corporate ax lobbyists, McIntyre "had no budget to wine and dine anyone," Murray said. "He just kept chrning out press releases and lists. He's shown what you can do with a good head, public information, and a personal computer."

As the demand for tax reform increased, congressional deliberations placed McIntyre in a tricky position with his own board. Some proposals, such as taxing fringe benefits that unions had won for their members, could have blown union support for tax reform. "He was fearless in defending what he thought was right, even if it bumped against his own bankroll," said McIntyre's friend Michael Kinsley, editor of The New Republic. McIntyre said he kept the union's support by stressing the larger tax picture. "We pointed out that most people would be better off overall and asked them to do their own analyses," McIntyre said. "They concluded the overall picture would be better for their members."

The unions that funded McIntyre helped publicize the cause. The Communication Workers of America held a press conference in New Jersey in which a union representative held up a General Electric light bulb and announced, "I paid more sales tax on this light bulb than General Electric paid in taxes during the last three years." The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees began a penny brigade, sending lawmakers a single cent toward the deficit and saying that while it wasn't much, it was more than 128 big businesses had paid. Union T-shirts read: "I paid more taxes than Lockheed, Dow Chemical, and W.R. Grace and Co. combined."

While CTJ's funding comes primarily from liberal groups, their figures helped garner conservative support. Columnist James J. Kilpatrick used the group's figures. So did corporations who were stuck paying high taxes. Companies paying high taxes, such as Whirlpool and Ralston-Purina, began complaining about the competition's freeloading. The targets of attack squawked at McIntyre's accounting, arguing he misrepresented items like deferred tax liabilities and ignored investment incentives that help the economy. But their criticisms wer lost in the swelling support for tax reform.

CTJ is now scrutinizing the corporate loopholes in state tax codes. Next on the group's list are billionaires who use real estate deals to duck taxes. Donald Trump and Mort Zuckerman beware.

*Center on Budget and Policy Priorities: "Poor Still Getting Poorer, Budget Study Concludes," ran the recent headline in The Washington Post, after another study from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Washington is loaded with high-priced lobbyists seeking subsidies for the middle class and for busines. The CBPP raises an effective voice for the poor. It does so by writing quick and clear analyses of how legislation would affect the poor. The numbers, which are trusted across the ideological spectrum, often speak for themselves.

Director Robert Greenstein founded the Center in 1981, after heading the Agriculture Department's Food and Nutrition Service, the agency responsible for the nation's food assistance programs. He and seven crack analysts work in stark offices, sifting through the latest numbers from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office and the Census Bureau. Their phone number is the first one most reporters dial for statistics on the poor. "I find that they don't overdo their spin on things," said Tom Kenworthy of The Washington Post. "They don't put a big ideological rap on you when they explain their analyses."

The speed and accuracy of the Center's work has earned it an ear on the Hill, too. An example from the 1986 tax reform debate is typical. When it looked as if the Senate Finance Committee was ready to endorse a less generous tax credit for the working poor tahn that favored by the House, Greenstein jumped in. In one day his staff produced a three-page memo proving that the poor would be hurt and showing the senators a simple way to solve the problem. The committee members didn't even realize what they had done. When they found out, they took Greenstein's advice.

The Center again guarded the interests of the poor during the drafting of recent deficit reduction laws. Its analysis contributed to Congress's decision to exempt certain food, welfare, and medical programs from automatic cuts that will take place if Congress fails to meet the law's deficit reduction targets.

To its credit, the Center also searches the budget for items to cut. Even programs much loved by urban liberals, who provide the bulk of the funding for greenstein's group, sometimes make the list. These include suggested reductions for the Economic Development Administration and Urban Development Action Grants. Recently the Reagan administration adopted a suggestion from the Center to provide incentives for states to begin competitive bidding in supplemental food programs, so more women and children can receive milk, cheese, eggs, fruit juices, and other foods. The Center has also helped states implement workfare programs to help welfare receipients finds jobs.

*The Natural Resources Defense Council: These are the Wall Street lawyers of the environmental movement. When an environmental cause needs first-class legal representation or policy analysis, it turns to the NRDC. The group's scientific and legal expertise has put it at the center of every major environmental debate for two decades. "They are smart, aggressive, and they know what they are doing," said Ron Outen, a former Republican staffer for the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee.

The NRDC pioneered the use of the lawsuit to safeguard the environment. Since it began work in 1970, the NRDC's suits have led to landmark decisions influencing the laws governing air and water pollution, toxic wastes, drinking water, pesticides, nuclear energy, energy conservation, and land use. The Calvert Cliffs case, for example, forced government regulators to take into account environmental concersn when issuing licenses for the construction of nuclear power plants.

The NRDC often slows the pace of potentially hazardous development by filing suit to block action long enough for Congress to get involved. It delayed the construction of the Clinch River Breeder Reactor long enough for Congress to kill the project. On a differnt front, the NRDC's lawsuit against the timber industry in West Virginia led to the National Forest Management Act, which significantly restricts clear-cutting on national forest lands.

The NRDC also rides herd on the Environmental Protection Agency, checking its enforcement of clean air and water laws. In 1976, the NRDC took the lead role in compelling the EPA to enforce the Clean Water Act and control industrial pollutants. EPA staff members say NRDC lawyers know more about the Clean Air Act than anyone else, including most EPA lawyers. Early on, the NRDC won a major victory when it forced the Tennessee Valley Authority to reduce itssulfur dioxide emissions. This set a pattern for future enforcement actions. The Council's victories also include the reduction of lead in gasoline and the control of chemicals that deplete the ozone layer.

The NRDC's quality work allows it to draw support from across the political spectrum. Today it has a budget of $10 million, drawn from individual and foundation contributions, and employs 25 attorneys.

*The Nature Conservancy: Other environmental groups condemn The Nature Conservancy for refusing to take on the corporate world or the Reagan administration. But by forgoing these tactics the low-profile Conservancy has preserved some 2.6 million acres of selected wetlands, deserts, forests, prairies, and islands. Their work helps establish an important public interest principle: you don't always have to work through the government to get things done.

While many other environmental groups are busy talking from their K Street offices, The Nature Conservancy is out with mud on its boots, snatching vital lands from the jaws of condominium developers. "They are all action and no talk," said Frank Dunkle, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

When Conservancy opreatives hear of a plan to build a ski resort on a mountain that provides the last good habitat for a certain warbler, they don't issue antidevelopment manifestos. Instead, Conservancy agents begin conventional commerical negotiations to buy the land outright before the developer. With donations of cash and land topping $73 million last year, the group commands considerable financial clout.

The Conservancy's non-confrontational approach keeps the group in good stead with corporate directors, from whom the Conservancy courts donations. As a result, The Nature Conservancy has amassed the largest system of privately owned nature sanctuaries in the world. It protects more than 150 species of endangered plants and animals and preserves some examples of America's most jeopardized natural ecosystems.

The Nature Conservancy also performs a unique service for the government. When a government agency decides to buy property, but hasn't received the spending authority it needs, the Conservancy often steps in, buying the property and holding it until the government gets the money. And it can serve as a middleman between government and private donors. It played a crucial role in the Prudential Insurance Company's recent donation of 120,000 acres of North Carolina forest and wetlands to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. For ten years, the Conservancy had appealed to Prudential to preserve or donate the land, which was considered the Southeast's most significant unprotected area. Nature Conservancy accountants and lawyers helped Prudential outline the tax advantages that encouraged the donation. Valued at $50 million, it is among the largest gifts in the history of American conservation.

*National Taxpayers Union: Public interest groups spend much of their time demanding that the government do something. Protect consumers! Regulate business! Save the environment! National Taxpayers Union tries to get the government to stop doing something--stop wasting money on boondoggles.

NTU is discerning in identifying wasteful projects. And it shoots at both liberal and conservative targets. While its own actions may be motivated by the conservatives' desire for a smaller federal government, its activities are useful to the whole public interest industry: the fewer things the government does wrong, the more faith the public will have in its ability to do the things we want it to do right.

The group was founded in 1969 by James D. Davidson, a 22-year-old graduate student who had worked for the Nixon campaign. He was disillusioned that so many campaign workers hadn't thought past the next election. "No one was thinking about the future fiscal well-being of the nation," he said. "These things scared me. I had this great illusion that we could do something for the poor neglected taxpayer, that if we spoke out it would be like sprinkling pxiie dust in a fairy tale and everything would be all right."

NTU scored its first victory when it helped scuttle the Nixon administration's proposal to build a supersonic transport like the Concorde. It helped eliminate the Synthetic Fuels Corporation, which was trying to produce synthetic fuel at $60 a barrel when oil was selling for less than half that price. NTU also joined in a coalition to defeat that $6 billion Westway highway project slated for Manhattan's West Side. It would have been America's most expensive highway, at $15,000 an inch. Joining with environmental groups, NTU helped kill the Clinch River Breeder Reactor, where cost overruns were more than enough to wipe out the savings it was designed to produce.

NTU has a penchant for making enemies. Each year, it reports the biggest pork barrel artists in Congress, an activity that especially irrities conservatives because it doesn't differentiate between defense spending and domestic spending. Bureaucrats despise it for carping about the annual civil service pay raises and pension increases. NTU opposes the "double-dipping" that allows government workers to collect a pension while drawing another government salary. NTU has also been a force in stemming pay raises for congressmen and succeeded in its drive to get lawmakers to pay Scoial Security taxes like everyone else.

Unlike some other conservative groups, NTU doesn't spare the wastefulness of the Pentagon. When the wings of the military's C-5A cargo planes began to crack, Ntu jumped on the Defense Department for accepting Lockheed's expensive repair contract without considering other feasible options. It has called for spending less on the defense of European and Asian allies. And NTU has also called for cuts in the generous military pensions that encourage valuable commissioned and noncommissioned officers to retire in their early forties and work for someone else.

Lots of congressional aides consider NTU "kooky." Maybe that's one reason why the national debt it so high.

The Worst

*National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare: "URGENT! Important Social Security and Medicare Information Enclosed," screams the official-looking envelope. "Attention Postmaster: Time Dated Official National Committee Documents Enclosed. Expedite for Immediate Delivery."

No one knows how many elderly citizens receiving this fundraising apeal confuse it with a real letter about their Social Security or Medicare benefits. But the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare knows one thing: this kind of letter raises big money, some $90 million so far.

The letters always ask recipients to "save the Social Security system" by sending money to the National Committee. Sometimes the Committee does such a good job of imitating the government's letters that the elderly show up at local Social Security offices to pay what the letter seems to demand in order to keep benefits coming.

The National Committee is headed by James Roosevelt, the eldest son of FDR. He regularly invokes his lineage in the National Committee's letters. "Never in the 51 years since my father, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, started the Social Security system. . ." is his typical opening pitch. Invariably, what follows is a breathless description of some dastardly plot he has uncovered to do away with the Social Security and Medicare programs. "Act now," he says. Sign the enclosed petition and send $10 to become a member. "I will be very disappointed if you don't join," he adds in a P.S.

These misleading fundraising techniques have drawn fire from many members of Congress. Lawton Chiles, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, has co-sponsored legislation with Republican Senator John Heinz of Pennsylvania that would force the National Committee to state in large print that its mail is not from the U.S. government. They drafted the bill after the National Committee sent an especially misleading letter implying that the Social Security fund would go broke unless contributions were made immediately.

Chiles, a Florida Democrat, found that those who could afford it least had given hundreds of dollars to the National Committee and that the group did little in Washington. A House investigation of the group concluded most of the funds went to a California direct mail firm, Butcher-Forde.

To counter the criticism that the Committee was invisible in Washington, it hired 13 lobbyists last year and moved into plush penthouse quarters on K Street's lawyers' lane. Then it began lobbying Congress with the same scare tactics it had used to shake down the unsuspecting elderly. Lobbyists delivered the names of nearly eight million Social Security receipients who, the Committee claimed, had signed petitions opposing Social Security cuts. The Committee did not say these "petitions" were part of fundraising gimmicks the Committee had been using for years.

Franklin Roosevelt's most important advice to the American people was to tell them they had nothing to fear but fear itself. He knew that a frightened citizenry was not a wise citizenry. His son James has exploited the corollary: a frightened citizenry is easily bilked.

*The national Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws: NORML is an example of a public interest group willing to embrace whatever cause is necessary to survive. It was founded in 1970 with the noble intention of keeping college kids and Vietnam veterans out of prison for smoking pot. But when society began winking at private and casual marijuana use (except for Supreme Court nominees), NORML had to search elsewhere for funds and raison d'etre. It found both in the lawyers for cocaine dealers and mid-level mobsters whom it now serves.

NORML raises a third of its funds by organizing legal seminars for those who defend cocaine smugglers and dealers of other hard drugs. (See Amy Cunningham, "NORML's Bad Trip," July-August 1986.) Want to know how to make federal drug agents look stupied on the stand? How to spot sympathetic jurors? How to cast doubt on federal informers? Then NORML's for you. It's also for people like Albert Krieger, the defense attorney for reputed mobster Joe Bonnano, who has helped lead the seminars. So has Carlos Madrid Palacios, the alleged security man for Jorge Ochoa, once estimated as the world's fourth-largest cocaine dealer.

"We're not at all ashamed to get their money and be associated with them," said Jon Gettman, NORML's director. "It doesn't matter what kind of criminals they have represented. Who is to say we should not defend criminals?"

Gettman makes it sound like NORML's activities stem from principle. In fact, it's principal they stem from, or the lack of it. NORML's membership and budget grew rapidly in the 1970s, fueled by the organization's highly publicized defenses of people like 19-year-old Jerry Mitchell of Missouri. In 1976, Mitchell was sentenced to 12 years in prison for selling an agent a third of an ounce of marijuana for five dollars and assisting in the sale of a pound. NORML helped get the sentence reduced, and contributions steadily rose. Its income grew from $87,000 in 1972 to $450,000 in 1978. But its outgo grew even faster, and the group was always in debt and hungry for more cash.

By 1978, much of NORML's original agenda had been achieved. Few casual pot smokers were getting arrested. Eleven states had decriminalized the use of marijuana and 30 others offered slap-on-the-wrist penalties. As the laws changed, the contributions slowed. By the end of the decade, NORML's original constituency of grow-your-own hippies was disappearing, and a new one of lawyers in $500 shoes was growing. NORML's officials say the lucrative legal seminars--$475 a person--are the single most important reason for a debt that has shrunk from $125,000 to $20,000 and a budget that's growing again.

NORML still does some good things. It publishes material on the health effects of marijuana. It lobbies the Drug Enforcement Administration to file environmental impact statements when spraying paraquat. It has argued against mandatory urine testing for Justice Department employees and fought constitutionally dubious efforts to make some drug lawyers testify against clients. But NORML's ties to big-time drug dealers deny it the credibility it needs. So does its opposition to sensible proposals like that of William von Raab, the U.S. Customs Commissioner, to stamp the passports of convicted drug dealers.

A truer measure of NORML's effect on public policy was seen in 1977, when Dr. Peter Bourne attended the group's Christmas Party. Bourne,

Jimmy Carter's drug policy adviser, took the opportunity to snort a bit of cocaine. When the story hit the press, bourne resigned.

*National Organization for Women: There are hundreds of public interest groups that fight for equal opportunity. Together, they've made America a fairer and more decent place. But like all Washington lobbies they can wind up following their own agenda, instead of that of those they represent. Perhaps the worst offender in that category is the National Organization for Women. While it's the group that boasts the largest constituency--more than half of America--it also happens to be among the most out of touch.

There is much to be said on NOW's behalf. For most of its 21 years NOW has been the women's movement. Thanks in part to NOW, the workplace is less sexist and credit is available without discrimination. Even the Little League now lets girls step up to the plate. But when push comes to lobbying, NOW avoids the trenchwork it takes to get women the economic opportunities they deserve.

Instead, it opts for P.R. events and loud but empty rhetoric. "It is time to raise hell against an opposition that is frequently nothing but fascists!" harangued Eleanor Smeal at NOW's 1986 annual meeting. NOW's bylaws say its purpose "is to take action to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society." And on what fronts does NOW wage this war? There was the Central american front, when NOW organized the "Benjamin Linder Peace Tour," to protest American support of the Contras. There was the Iranian front, with NOW's call for the impeachment of Ronald Reagan over the Iran-Contra affair. And there was the Vatican front too, with NOW's "Last Lunch" to protest the policies of the Catholic Church.

O.K., you're thinking, so NOW engages in some ostentatious protests--it still does great work on behalf of women. That's not what lobbyists for other women's groups say. Look at what has happened since Senator Christopher Dodd introduced a bill that would commit $2.5 billion to improving day care, mostly for lower-income and working-class families who can't afford the $3,000 that a year of day care costs on average in the U.S. What is NOW doing to make sure it doesn't fall under the Gramm-Rudman cleaver? By its own admission, not much. It's simply "not enough to get excited about," said Sheri O'Dell, a NOW vice-president.

This kind of weak endorsement irks lobbyists for other women's groups who charge that NOW isn't pulling its weight. "Let's face it," said one women's rights lobbyist, "Ronald Reagan is in the White house and you have to get a bill through Congress. NOW would rather have principle and a fund-raising drive than win." According to the vast majority of lobbyists and Capitol Hill aides I spoke with, NOW has yet to be much of an asset to those lobbying for the Dodd measure. (By contrast, the Women's Equity Action League was singled out for its hard work on economic issues.)

So lax is NOW that it has ceded a great working women's issue to, of all people, Phyllis Schlafly: lifting the federal and local laws and regulations that restrict work that can be done at home. While Schlafly has has spoken out publicly against these laws, NOW has been silent. That's tragic because these laws prevent more flexible work arrangements that could allow many women to spend more time with their families and still earn a living wage. The restrictions mostly date from a time when there were oppressive work conditions at home, with little regard for safety. But today those restrictions could be lifted with ease and safety could be ensured through a system of home inspection. It's an important family issue that NOW is too preoccupied to recognize.

NOW's national leadership wouldn't have to look far to find more constructive examples of women's advocacy. By contrast, many chapters of NOW across the country have scored important legislative victories, such as stricter spouse abuse laws in Wyoming and a rape prevention program in West Vriginia. NOW's Chicago branch even sent members to Washington to lobby for more generous parental-leave laws. But NOW's national leaders are too busy fighting the fascists. No wonder it's lost a third of its members in the past ten years.

*Citizens for Sensible Control of Acid Rain (CSCAR): Who wouldn't be for the sensible control of acid rain? The utilities, coal producers, and manufacturing companies who fund this falsely advertised group, that's who.

Washington is full of misnamed corporate groups that pose as defenders of the public interest. The Clean Capital City Committee that led the opposition to a D.C. can and bottle refund law was funded by the Glass Packaging Institute, the Can Manufacturers Institute, and other businesses. These groups are a bad lot, but CSCAR is one of the worst.

A recent CSCAR "grassroots" campaign consisted of hiring Washington lobbyists to send out 800,000 letters denouncing a bill to control acid rain. Each packet contained a stamped envelope, addressed to the recipient's congressman, and a just-sign-and-send letter of opposition. The bill that was the target of attack would have forced power plants and large industries to phase down their sulfur oxide and nitrogen oxide emissions.

"What we do is try to promote participation and understanding of the issue," said CSCAR's executive director, Thomas Buckmaster, who runs the operation from the Washington office of Fleishman & Hillard Inc., a public relations firms. Scientists do disagree about the effect of acid rain, and industries do have a right to tell their customers a side of the story that enviromentalists skip, like the cost to consumers of emissions control. But those 800,000 "education" packets never said who was behind the project. The 130,000 people who Buckmaster proudly notes "took the extraordinary step" of signing the letter did so in the dark.

CSCAR only fessed up its industry backing to the letter recipients after the Public Interest Research Group and others who support acid rain legislation cried foul. Last year CSCAR finally began to include a line at the bottom of the stationery that disclosed that its financing came from utilities such as the American Electric and Power Corporation in Columbus, Ohio, and the Union Electric Company in St. Louis. "If industries want to lobby, that's fine," says Rep. James Florio, chairman of a House consumer affairs subcommittee. "but when they disguise themselves as grassroots citizens groups, that's deceptive. Their letter-writing campaign was phony, which doesn't say much for the group's confidence about winning if they played fairly."