Consuming the Consumer

If there was any hope that the White House would at least pay lip service to consumer protection, President Nixon’s recent “Human Resources” message to Congress scrapped it. The section in the message devoted to “Consumer Affairs” was a dismal declaration of no interest.

Where previous Presidents have spoken about market place abuses of the consumer’s and pocketbook, health and safety, President Nixon praises business/industry. Blithely ignoring the massive evidence of price-fixing) gouging, deception, and product hazards accumulated by his own agencies, not to mention the volumes of Congressional testimony, he refuses to make one specific recommendation to the Congress for advancing consumer justice. He speaks not of the great need for prosecuting businesses who violate existing federal consumer laws.
Instead, the President tries to explain officially the shift of the White House Office of Consumer Affairs to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW). This is the small office under Virginia Knauer whose only reason for being listened to at all was that it was located under the President’s wing. As such its embarrassing non-assertiveness for consumer causes often reflected on the White House directly.
Since the President’s principal effort in the past year on consumer matters was to oppose or undermine key legislation pending in Congress, such a spotlight was uncomfortable to his powerful aides. So the decision was made to transfer the office into some obscure niche in the gigantic HEW bureaucracy.
“From this new base,” the President emphasized in his message, “the Office of Consumer Affairs will continue its policy formation role and educational efforts, and will also take on additional responsibilities, including representing consumer interestin testimony before the Congress and acting as a general ombudsman for the individual consumer.”
These are not “additional” responsibilities at all. The Office has had them all along. It is such deception that persuaded everyone in the Office that they were being decidedly downgraded. To keep up appearances, Mrs. Knauer will continue to have an office under the White House complex. But it is merely a pretense.
Mrs. Knauer is deeply disappointed but she has learned to preside over her ineffectual domain with a political facade of eager compliance.
The most direct responsibility for this final abdication of the White House in falls consumer protection/on the loyalist shoulders of Caspar Weinberger, Secretary of HEW and White House czar over all consumer matters in the federal government. He was in charge of preparing the “Human Resources” message and approved the Presidential sweep of the hand to the plight of millions of American consumers. Mrs. Knauer’s office was not permitted to have any input. And for the second year running there is no special Presidential consumer message planned.
Readers might be interested to know what a liberated Knauer office would have put into the message. First, there would have been support for an independent Consumer Protection Agency to represent consumers before federal agencies. Pro-business White House aides blocked this bill in Congress last year. Second, added powers to the Federal Trade Commission, supported by the President two years ago but now dropped, would have been urged upon the legislature. Third, stronger amendments to the auto safety law and new warranty and guarantee reform legislation would have been pushed. Class action to allow consumers to sue a company as a group and federal reform of auto insurance would also have been on the Office’s priority list. These suggestions never had a chance.
Chalk up another withdrawal of Presidential responsibility. For the purchaser of food and other price-rocketing goods and services, it’s back to “let the buyer beware.” So, if you don’t like being ignored as a consumer in distress, send the White House a message, with carbon copies to your Conressman.

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