Consumer Road Show
William J. Baroody Jr. couldn’t have done better by the consumer movement that he so strenuously opposes.
As the President’s assistant for public liaison, Baroody is the coordinator of a series of regional White House conferences this month on proposed federal departmental consumer representation plans in major cities around the country. Both the plans and the conferences have been variously denounced as wasteful, window dressing, electioneering and bureaucratic by consumer groups, local officials and editorials.
At each conference — Chicago, Kansas City, Boston, Atlanta and other cities — aroused consumer organizations turned out to expose this transparent attempt to counteract Ford’s determination to veto the long-needed consumer protection agency recently passed by Congress.
Nothing could have so quickly coalesced consumer sentiment against the Ford administration than this amalgam of jet-set road‑ showers from Washington and their local business supporters, like Sears in Chicago, who wined and dined them before the day’s unsuccessful attempt to brainwash the local populace.
How did this backfire occur? About a year ago, a group of Ford’s advisers decided that the consumer bill must be opposed at all costs.
Too many big corporations. GM, Ford, Procter & Gamble, Greyhound, J.C. Penney, Exxon — were against any legislation that would establish a consumer agency with the expertise and authority to challenge or take to court the federal agencies which buckled under so often to that same big business pressure.
These advisers realized, however, that consumer protection at a time of rising food, fuel, utility and housing prices could not be ignored.
So first they tried to smear the proposed consumer agency as “another layer of bureaucracy” that would add to the federal budget. Then they devised a presidential directive on .April 17, 1975, to federal departments regarding a review of their “policies and procedures as they affect consumer representation in agency decision-making.”
On Nov. 26, a bulging Federal Register appeared with the proposed consumer representation plans for 17 departments. Filled with make-words and classic bureaucratic blahs, these proposals envisioned more paper shuffling, slick titles such as “consumer affairs coordinator” and assorted paraphernalia of this cosmetic consumer circus.
Questions such as what independent authority to take on the particular department would be given to these consumer affairs offices, or whether such offices could take their departments to court, went ignored.
In the Department ‘of Housing and Urban Development, consumer complaints were to be answered promptly and used to evaluate program ‘purposes. Nothing was said about redressing the many legitimate complaints.
On the road this month, Baroody, his entourage Virginia Knauer, her entourage, and Cabinet secretaries and representatives of 17 departments were rushing from city to city.
At the conferences and workshops, President Ford’s name was invoked at every opportunity. Unmentioned was Ford’s refusal to speak to any consumer group while addressing SO industry groups in the past year.
But, excepting the emissaries from business or regional federal employees, the White House’s strategy didn’t wash.
The Boston Globe editorially advised the public to “have no part of it.” The Wall Street Journal criticized the road trip as a perversion of Ford’s alleged interest in reducing bureaucracy.
Richard Borten, executive director of the city of Boston’s Consumers’ Council, called the Ford conferences “an expensive hoax aimed at New England consumers.”
Consumer groups in Chicago and Boston prepared a “baloney and crumbs luncheon” to symbolize their rejection of the conferences’ purposes.