The Importance of Being "Balanced"
Even if private standards-setting is as "open" as its public counterparts, what really matters under the interest group theory of administrative law is who actually participates, not who theoretically could. In this respect, most private organizations lend credence to the theory by placing a premium on the appearance of "balanced" decisionmaking. NFPA is the extreme case, conducting what one NFPA member calls "standards-setting by town meeting." The membership at large virtually makes the final decision on whether to adopt a standard. (The Standards Council actually has the final say, a power it has exercised in response to efforts to "pack" votes on the convention floor.) At the committee level, NFPA goes to great lengths to classify its members according to their "interest." The Standards Council reviews assignments to ensure that committees are "balanced" and that no single interest dominates the proceedings. As a practical matter, this usually means that no more than two representatives on a committee are ever from a single category of interests. But the Standards Council looks at specific issues as well as overall numbers. On the Fire Sprinkler Committee, for example, "balance" also means equal representation from metal and plastic interests, and the Standards Council has recently decided that "balance" on another committee requires both union and nonunion representation. The importance played by NFPA members on the makeup of committees is evident in the increasing number of formal appeals over committee membership decisions.
Whether any of this really affects the quality of standards-setting is unclear. Three questionable assumptions underlie the application of "interest group theory" to private standards-setting. First, standards-setting is assumed to be a legislative-type process, in which voting is the ultimate method of decisionmaking. That is not the case with UL standards. It probably is not an accurate description of most "consensus" decisionmaking. Second, the balance of participating interests on the private side is thought to be weighted heavily in favor of business rather
than consumer interests. That is not true in many private standards-setting efforts. Various "business" interests advance the cause of safety. Finally, the underlying assumption is that adding more "consumers" or consumer advocates would have a beneficial effect on the process. The case studies provide several reasons to discount this hypothesis.