Magazine article The Washington Monthly

The Best and Worst of Public Interest Groups; from Lifting Up the Poor to Shaking Down the Elderly

Magazine article The Washington Monthly

The Best and Worst of Public Interest Groups; from Lifting Up the Poor to Shaking Down the Elderly

Article excerpt

The Best and Worst of Public Interest Groups

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. …

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