The Politics of Consumer Issues

In a recent column, Sylvia Porter observed that “the consumer movement has strayed from the issues of greatest concern to you (the consumer).” She wrote that an independent consumer agency and other access-to-government measures do not directly affect consumers. “There is no obvious, immediately demonstrable and vivid way in which an independent consumer agency could improve your way of life,” she added.

What should the consumer movement be focusing on? According to Ms. Porter, the two biggest issues are the cost of living and shoddy, defective products.

Sometimes I wonder whether some of these widely syndicated columnists read their own prior columns, not to mention learning about what they write. Who, if not the consumer movement, has been going after high meat prices, energy and utility gouges, outlandish health care bills, and unsafe appliances, automobiles, food additives and drugs?

At local, state and national levels, consumer groups are grappling with abuses that people, judging by their individual reactions and national polls, feel strongly about. The consumer response to disclosures about the dangers of the drug Darvon, the Pinto car and Firestone radial tires was an outpouring of further evidence that consumer groups were indeed in touch.

If Sylvia Porter is unable to find examples of consumer groups fighting inflation, the 6-month-old challenge to the Department of Energy’s (DOE) persistent attempt to lift all price controls on gasoline may interest her. Since September 1978, our lawyers have stopped Energy Secretary James Schlesinger from allowing the oil industry to take another $350 million a month out of motorists┬░ pockets. If DOE decontrolled last Sept. 1, the price of gasoline would have gone up another 4 cents per gallon, in addition to the alleged cost pass-throughs the government already permits this very profitable industry. By March 1, 1979, consumers had saved about $2.1 billion dollars or an average on $20 for every vehicle in the United States.

Here are giant oil companies glutted with so much profit-cash that they are busily buying up department store chains, copper companies, hospital supply and cable TV programming firms. Yet the oil barons are still demanding that the federal government drop all controls over their avarice.

Inflation-fueling moves by big business go on all the time in Washington. Consumer groups simply do not have the resources to expose and stop them. While the Fortune 500 have their law firms, trade associations and captive government departments fighting daily for them, the consumers of America are represented by a handful of groups in our national capital whose total annual budgets are less than the giants of industry and commerce rip off in an hour.

This ingrained imbalance of representation in Washington was what the business lobbies were determined to continue when they fought to defeat the consumer protection bill last year. They preferred to have Uncle Sam all to themselves, without the consumers’ voice and interests being heard in the daily hearings and deliberations of the agencies that decide health, safety and economic policies.

A consumer advocacy agency would hasten withdrawal of dangerous and defective products from the marketplace. It would block unconscionable or illegal price increases and fraudulent practices by challenging the industry-indentured bureaucracies in Washington.

But as a whole business-financed members of Congress are ignoring consumer rights in today’s economy. The White House and President Carter spend vastly more time worrying about the demands of big business than the rights of small consumers. The media, while covering more, consumer news than 15 years ago, still misses or avoids major stories that would, to use Ms. Porter’s words, reach consumers in a “vivid way.”

Consequently, what the consumer movement must do is to transform the consumer abuses into political issues–as was done last month in Cleveland. Politicians heed political power more than the cries of the aggrieved. Political power comes from mobilizing consumer voters, publicizing the voting behavior of politicos back home, and establishing consumer-owned cooperatives to provide both economic and political muscle.

The growing interest in direct democracy assertions, through the initiative, referendum and recall, reflects a further demand for more civic bootstrap operations. Yes, Sylvia Porter, the consumer movement is concentrating on your chosen priorities. But it needs to go beyond those symptoms to build the fundamentals of consumer sovereignty.

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