Consumerism?

President Ronald Reagan, the arch-anticonsumerist, proclaimed the last week in April National Consumers’ Week and left it up to his consumer adviser, Virginia Knauer, to fuzz the irony. She had trouble doing so.

On the “Today Show,” she could not explain why Reagan would not meet with consumer groups during Consumer Week. He was busy with the Falkland Islands crisis. But, the interviewer noted, he met with the Chamber of Commerce on Monday.

Poor Virginia Knauer. She cannot persuade her president to pay any attention to consumer protection matters that Big Business does not like. Reagan has found time for many meetings with business leaders, less frequent meetings with labor leaders and even occasional gatherings with actors, actresses and athletes. But since he came into office, the president has rejected requests to meet with consumer associations.

Given his deplorable consumer record, such reluctance is explainable, if not justifiable. What there can be no excuse for is the nearly $2 million budget of his White House Office of Consumer Affairs (OCA) that produces nothing of any significance for consumers. In contrast with Esther Peterson’s OCA under Carter, Mrs. Knauer’s OCA is a transparent public relations mask over the administration’s shameful treatment of the health, safety and economic rights of American shoppers. Reagan could end this prominent placement of hypocrisy by abolishing his putty factory in the White House.

Consider the Fair on the Mall (near the White House) that Virginia Knauer arranged for National Consumers’ Week. It was heavily composed of corporate trade associations. On the exhibition list was the American Meat Institute, currently engaged in a lobbying drive to weaken the meat inspection laws. So was the American Council on Life Insurance, habitually engaged in stopping Congress from enacting a truth-in-life insurance law so buyers can compare different policies more informatively. Then there was the National Automobile Dealers Association, which is filling the campaign pockets of many senators and representatives while urging them to veto the used car defect disclosure rule issued by the Federal Trade Commission. The list goes on to include the American Gas Association and the Electronic Industries Association–groups well-known for their pursuit of policies inimical to consumers.

Nancy Drabble, director of Congress Watch, said that this display was like having National Pest Control Week and inviting the cockroaches as honored guests. She renamed the week-long event “National Con the Consumers Week.”

It would have been much more impressive were Mrs. Knauer to display the chief henchmen who are weakening our government’s ability to defend the people from hazardous drugs, unsafe cars, contaminated food, health-care rip-offs, steep interest rates and monopolistic practices that make for high prices.

Behind the booths on the mall could have been Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis, whose decisions will condemn tens of thousands of Americans to death and serious injury on the highways in the coming decade. Next to him could have been James Miller III, chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, whose chief ambition is to destroy his own agency for the pleasure of unscrupulous business firms.

It could have been quite a rogues’ gallery for citizens to. peruse that week. But there was a consolation prize: The real rulers of the Reagan administration were there instead–the trade associations of corporations. That’s the real government, anyway.

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