President Carter’s Inaffectual Actions Regarding the Consumer Federation

His presidential decisions are costing American consumers more money than the combined actions of all previous presidents back to George Washington. So it was understandable that when he came to deliver his speech to the Consumer Federation of America’s annual assembly in Washington, President Jimmy Carter, who earlier rejected traditional pomp and ceremony, brought along the Marine Corps Band to play “Hail to the Chief.”

“Does the Marine Band usually accompany the president to speeches like this?” a person in the audience asked a Carter aide. “Only in an election year,” he replied wryly. But Carter’s speech was not an election-year address. It was much more disappointing. There was no determined affirmation of support for the Consumer Protection Agency legislation which he once assured us was a top priority for his administration. Instead he heaped praise on his consumer adviser, Esther Peterson, whose advice to include a paragraph on the proposed agency he had rejected. It was left to Sen. Kennedy two hours later to the same audience why the agency has not been established.

One reason is Jimmy Carter. He never fought for the agency before it was narrowly defeated in the House of Representatives two years ago. Nor did his chief congressional lobbyist, Frank Moore. Carter left it up to Esther Peterson and her tiny lobbying staff of one. After the vote, he abandoned the consumership in both deed and rhetoric.

Such abdication was not a matter of indifference to the subject. His attitude had a diverse instrumental purpose. How could he give up price controls over domestic natural gas and oil prices–thereby letting domestic prices be determined by monopoly power–and still put presidential muscle behind a consumer protection agency? Probably the first challenge by this agency would be directed toward his Department of Energy–an almost wholly owned subsidiary of the oil and gas industry.

The trillion dollars in higher gasoline and home heating fuel prices which Americans will pay in the ’80s because of Carter’s decontrol policies (i.e., shifting the price of U.S. gas and oil from Uncle Sam to the OPEC–Exxon cartel) would be exposed by the agency, to his embarrassment. He much prefers giving the Consumer Assembly the American Petroleum Institute line: “Subsidizing oil prices to keep them artificially low canonly harm our efforts for conservation and impede the development of new energy sources in America.” What he really is saying is that the oil and gas industry in this country must be allowed to get 10 times more for their crude oil and wellhead gas than they received in 1972-1973. What other industry would have a presidential seal of approval for such aheist?

But Jimmy Carter’s anti-consumer machine is just warming up. He soon will sign into law a bill creating an Energy Mobilization Board with authority to override state and local laws that protect worker, consumer and environmental health and safety and other basic rights. He soon will be funneling billions of consumer dollars into boondoggle synthetic fuel projects of the Big Oil companies which have been condemned by most economists–right and left–and by cancer prevention specialists. .

What makes Jimmy Carter so shameless as to praise by name a number of his appointments to regulatory agencies who came from consumer groups when for three years he has unleashed his White House economic advisers to chill and harass their activities? Not once has he steadfastly stood up for these regulators as they were being unfairly pressured by industry might and members of Congress. Yet repeatedly he went before business groups to signal his inclination to go soft on regulating their crimes, hazards and frauds.

His latest pose as consumer champion relates to the beseiged Federal Trade Commission which is under severe assault by Congress and its trade association masters. “I pledge to you today that if the Congress sends me a bill that cripples the ability of the Federal Trade Commission to protect the American consumer, I will veto that bill,” he told the consumer gathering. On the very day (Feb. 7) the corporate-indentured Senate was curbing the FTC’s authority and consumer protection proceedings, Jimmy Carter’s White House lobbyists were occupied elsewhere. And in the language of Jimmy Carterese, defining what would cripple the ability of the FTC in terms of explicit restrictive amendments moving through Congress was to be left for future political expediencies. What counted that day for Carter was that he once again used a meaninglessly vague pledge to elicit applause from an audience left with nothing but hope.

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