Ralph Nader and his colleagues this week are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Congress Project, which published 20 to 40 page profiles of every member of Congress seeking re-election in 1972, including their voting records.
“No citizen group has ever done this before or since,” Nader said.
The release of the Congress Project profiles drew nationwide publicity, including an 1,800 word front-page article in the Sunday New York Times by Congressional reporter John D. Morris:
“Publication of the pamphlets completed a major phase of a year-old Congressional study described by Mr. Nader as his most important project to date,” Morris reported. “About 2,000 persons, most of them volunteers but including a paid staff of 200 here and 25 in the field, gathered masses of data through questionnaires, interviews and research in Washington and elsewhere.”
“The information was sifted by the Washington staff and finally condensed by 130 profile writers – students, lawyers, free-lance journalists and professors.”
“Many of the profiles contained perceptive observations of the inner workings of Congress – its power centers, power brokers, the maneuvering and machinations of its members and their relations with one another, with the Administration, with special interests, lobbyists, constituents and campaign contributors,” Morris reported.
“About 2,000 copies of each pamphlet are to be distributed to libraries, other organizations and individuals at $1 a copy.”
Remarkably, the Times even included where citizens could get the publications – “They are available from Grossman Publishers, Box 19281, Washington, D. C.”
Nader recalled that “personal interviews were conducted with the lawmakers, whether they liked it or not.”
“Such was the presence of the Nader Raiders in those days when the mainstream media covered far more progressive civic initiatives than is the case today,” Nader wrote recently. (See my column, Make Congress Accountable, August 26, 2022).
The Congress Project was directed by Robert C. Fellmeth, currently Price Professor of Public Interest Law, University of San Diego.
“The Congress Project recruited citizen researchers in every state and Congressional district to provide data on members of Congress,” Fellmeth recalled. “They worked with assigned journalists writing detailed profiles of each member subject to the next election cycle.”
“Those profiles also included interviews with members, opponents, and interested parties in the home district or state of each of them. It also included a lengthy questionnaire about policy positions solicited from each member. The resulting profiles were sent to interested media for local coverage throughout the nation.”
“Importantly, it included facts from their constituents about problems and hopes, details of the previous campaign of each – including promises made – and the Congressional voting record of each. Crucially, that voting record included determinative but generally unknown committee votes which at that time were rarely even disclosed publicly.”
“The Project then organized studies of major Congressional Committees. Each study became a book with primary authors including noteworthy scholars. These detailed sources of influence and statutory and investigative output.”
“Finally, Mark Green, Dave Zwick and James Fallows wrote Who Runs Congress, a popular paperback detailing the barriers to proper democratic functioning and the undue influence of special interests on Congressional decision making.”
Joan Claybrook, President Emeritus of Public Citizen, a national public interest organization founded by Ralph Nader in 1971, and former Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, was the director of the profiles section of the Congress Project.
“The profiles of 484 members of Congress released on October 24, 1972, were the talk
of the Congressional elections because never before had members running to reelection
been subject to such scrutiny with detailed information made public just weeks prior to the election,” Claybrook recalled.
“The profiles contained voting records, activities of members in the committees on which they served, information about bills they introduced and their legislative progress (or not), and the campaign money they raised and who did the funding to the extent it was public at that time.”
“As the leader of the profile project under Ralph Nader and Robert Fellmeth, I worked 18 hours a day for months and even did not attend law school (at night) from late August until the day of the release. I then worked madly to catch up to finish the whole semester in 8 weeks. It was exhausting but worth the effort to achieve this unique result. It should be done every Congressional election, though there is much more coverage of members of Congress actions now than in 1972.”
Claybrook said that one very positive result of the project was the creation of the Capitol Hill News Service “which added exponentially to the coverage in local papers of members
Nader said over the past 50 years, Congress has become separated from the people.
“There never was another Congress Project of this magnitude by anyone,” Nader wrote. “Passing years witnessed an increase in official source coverage of Congress, including C-SPAN, and a stiffening resolve by some members of Congress not again to be, in their inflated words, ‘humiliated,’ ‘ordered around’ or ‘subjected to biased reporting’ in such a very personal, specific manner.”
“Fast forward to today,” Nader said. “The failings of Congress are historic in scope and regularity, given its constitutionally specified authorities, such as the power to declare war and dutiful executive branch oversight. Congress no longer works a five-day week – it’s in on Tuesday, out on Thursday afternoon or evening, not counting ample recesses. Members of Congress spend enormous time raising campaign money, even though they exclusively can change how elections are funded nationwide.”
“Congress must come closer to and be more of the people’s common good. Communicating with Capitol Hill is far more difficult in this Internet Age. Serious citizens who try all forms of communication often only have the option to leave desperate brief messages for an increasingly unresponsive voicemail Congress.”
Nader proposes “two simple bills, if enacted, would go a long way toward making members of Congress identify with their sovereign voters, to be more part of ‘We the People’ instead of ‘We the Congress.’”
“Bill No. 1: Congress members will have no employment benefits that are not accorded to all American workers, including pensions, health insurance and deductible expenses. As for wage ratios, members will be paid no more than ten times the federal minimum wage.”
“Bill No. 2: Anytime the U.S. is engaged in armed warfare, declared or undeclared by Congress, all age-qualified able-bodied children and grandchildren of senators and representatives shall be immediately conscripted into the armed forces for military or civilian rendition of services.”
“Sharing in the benefits and burdens of the people would nourish the desire by members of Congress to become part of the solutions.”
“Who will introduce these bills and start this vibrant public conversation?” Nader asked.