This is the story of a public servant — Michael Pertschuk -‑ whose valiant work for over twenty years in the Senate and the FederalTrade Commission have helped millions of Americans.
He started as a young lawyer out of Yale on the staff of Senator Maurine Neuberger (D-OR). She had replaced her husband–a cigarette smoker–who died of lung cancer. Pertschuk took on the issue of warning labels on cigarettes and air time for anti-smoking advertisements. As a major opponent of the tobacco industry year after year, Pertschuk has been advocate, publicist, datalyst, strategist and, recently, exporter abroad of the drive to curb pernicious promotion by the cigarette companies and alert smokers to the dangers and ways out of the habit.
His crusade against the tobacco industry–done with more wit and humor than is the custom in Washington — was just a warm-up. In 1964 he became a staff counsel to Senator Warren Magnuson (D-WA), the powerful chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. There, over the next decade, he became the point man for a wave of consumer protection legislation such as this country has never before witnessed. From auto safety to pipeline safety to flammable fabric prevention to radiation safeguards to consumer product safety — to list a few initiatives — Pertschuk persuaded members of the Senate Committee and their staff of their worth. What started in that Committee usually ended as national law.
Often observing this process firsthand I admired the diplomatic conciliatory but determined way he went about his rounds on Capitol Hill and kept a respectful but ready-to-pounce press accurately informed while making headlines for his Senators, not himself.
Investigatory hearings on consumer health, safety and economic abuses by corporations were prepared by Pertschuk and his dedicated staff with precision. Witnesses made news; hearings were turned into printed volumes which provided a bedrock literature that nourished the escalation of higher expectations and demands of business sellers by the buying public.
Corporate lobbyists tried everything short of bribery to stop him. They went to his Senators; they went to him; they tried to be tough, to be friendly, to be reasonable, to be intellectual and to play the underdog. He listened, reasoned, negotiated and heard them out. But their calculations and contrivances did not work.
After Carter was elected, Pertschuk became Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) — the agency that is supposed to go after business fraud, monopoly and anti-competitive practices. Assembling probably the brightest staff in the FTC’s history, Pertschuk took off with an enthusiasm that alarmed some important members of Congress who were being reached by the companies and trade associations. The drive on Capitol Hill to clip the FTC’s wings was underway and the campaign money began to flow — from the doctors, the insurance companies, the used car dealers and various other lubricators of the legislative process.
The advertising industries joined the backlash against Pertschuk. You see, he did not like the idea of television commercials exploiting the minds of 5, 6 and 7 year olds on the morning kiddie shows to nag their parents to buy junk food and other trash. He wanted to have children’s advertising declared a deceptive practice or banned as it is in some European countries. But he was only one vote out of five on the Commission and would have to abide by the majority. The inquiry produced good information on children’s advertising but was eventually squashed by the advertising industry’s relentless opposition.
Nonetheless, in his seven years on the Commission, Pertschuk won battles and enlightened many buyers to their rights and remedies. Now he is a private citizen. Is he going the way of most others and joining a lucrative corporate law practice? No, instead he is launching an Advocacy Institute to help develop the skills “of existing citizen advocacy groups who now lack effective voice.” Only Pertschuk could enlist a panel of approximately 100 lawyers and professional lobbyists — who are often lobbying against one another — to agree to provide free “a range of legislative counseling and services to citizens who need to develop such strategies and skills.”
He is starting these services for citizen groups committed to tax equity, low cost media advocacy, and evaluating proposed judges, among others. Pertschuk wants to breed trained citizens because he knows how much every society needs them. Unlike most former government officials who sink from view, this man is not even breaking stride.