Consumer Bills

With Congress in its stretch drive before adjournment, it looks as if only three consumer protection bills will be passed over the relentless opposition of corporate lobbyists, often in subtle concert with White House aides.
The most important of these bills would establish a consumer protection agency to represent consumer interests before other federal regulatory agencies. This agency would not regulate anything; rather its lawyers, accountants, economists, engineers and scientists would simply advocate consumer rights for lower utility rates, safer food, drugs, automobiles and engage in many other activities before federal agencies who often neglect their consumer duties in favor of special interest groups.

Long-time Congressional staff people say they have never seen a more ferocious lobbying effort to block or undermine a bill. Leading forces against the bill include the Grocery Manufacturers of America, Proctor and Gamble, and the National Chamber of Commerce.

They are in opposition because a consumer agency would be effective as well as non-bureaucratic and inexpensive. The federal agency’s proposed budget in two years, for example, will be equivalent to 5 hours’ gross revenue of General Motors or less than 2 hours’ expenditures of the Pentagon. Yet this consumer watchdog could easily save thousands of lives and billions of dollars for Americans by making more certain that the laws are administered and enforced justly. Such an innovation in government could be a precedent for similar consumer advocacy agencies created at state and metropolitan levels.

The second bill which Congress is about to pass would create an independent consumer safety agency. Such an agency, at least in the Senate-passed version, would consolidate various consumer product safety activities now spread around the government, including the present food, drug, and cosmetic safety activities of the Food and Drug Administration. The proposed agency would focus on many household hazards, from floor heaters to appli­ances to toys. Procedures for safety standards, recall of defective products, and other safeguards are outlined in what is probably the most carefully drafted consumer safety bill of the decade.

The pharmaceutical industry is concentrating on the House of Representatives version of the bill to make sure that the Food and Drug Administration stays within the Depart­ment of Health, Education and Welfare, which is more amenable to drug company interests.

The third bill, which is certain to become law, sets standards for reducing property loss in motor vehicle collisions. This is colloquially called the “bumper bill” and could save motorists over a billion-and-a-half dollars a year. The idea for this legislation was given impetus when tests by Consumers Union and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety showed conclusively the immense damage to cars in crashes under 5 miles per hour because of their egg shell, ornamental bumpers. One such test reported that the average property damage for 1971 domestic automobiles, during 5 mile per hour collisions into a fixed barrier, totalled $320 per vehicle. The old Model A Ford did much better.

A unique provision of the legislation is designed to provide consumers with meaningful information about the operating costs and safety characteristics of vehicles by brand name thereby (in the words of the Senate report), “encouraging automobile manu­facturers to compete to produce cars with operating costs and safety characteristics [better than] required standards.”

However, many other consumer bills will not pass this year because of successful opposition by trade associations. These include proposals to reform the warranty and guarantee deception, to give the Federal Trade Commission simple powers it should have had 50 years ago to root out consumer injustice, and to permit consumers to file class actions against corporate defrauders in federal court. Consumers should learn more about them by asking their congressman or senator for information.

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