More than ever, politics and policy decisions in our Nation’s capital are dominated by big money. Contributions from U.S. and multinational corporations heavily influence the outcome of elections. And lawyers and lobbyists representing wealthy business interests dominate proceedings in Congress, in the courts and before federal agencies. It is time for the Congress to do something to level the playing field — to provide citizens, in their roles as consumers, homeowners and small business owners with better representation in the halls of Washington.
It is time to create a modest-sized agency whose mission would be to protect the interest of citizens in the rough-and-tumble of Washington politics. It is time — in an age where both major parties speak eloquently of curbing the role of special interests and returning Government to the people — to create a Consumer Protection Agency.
A Consumer Protection Agency — would be a tremendously lucrative investment for our Government to make. The Agency is an internal trim-tab — a tiny rudder within the Government but also aimed at the Government. It would more than finance its tiny price tag by creating enormous economic benefits for the public.
The purpose of a federal Consumer Protection Agency would be to improve the way Government decisions are made — to make them more responsive to the needs of the people, to make them fairer, in order to improve the functioning of our market economy. Corporations have the wealth and power to make their views known in Congress, in the courts and in agency proceedings. The ordinary citizen does not. Corporations can deduct their lobbying expenses on their income tax returns as necessary businessexpenses. Members of the public who get themselves to Washington to express their concerns on vital issues, even issues of direct economic concern to them, must do so at their own expense, with no tax break provided. These imbalances, time and time again, result in decisions that favor the multinational corporation over the individual American consumer and taxpayer.
When the Food and Drug Administration decides whether to approve for sale or to remove from the market a drug or medical device, medical supply corporations weigh in heavily; consumer interests are overwhelmed. When the Securities and Exchange Commission considers regulations regarding the fraud on shareholders or insider trading, corporations, brokers and investment banks provide detailed suggestions and arguments; small shareholders may never know the SEC proceedings
have occurred. When the Department of Transportation decides whether to order a recall of a potentially dangerous automobile model, the manufacturer can launch a heavily-funded offensive, while disagreggated consumers have little influence. When the Federal Aviation Administration considers new air travel and airport safety rules, the major carriers weigh in, but airline passengers have little representation. When banking agencies turn a deaf ear to a virtual crime wave by rogue savings-and-loan operators, millions of taxpayers and savers have no one to speak up for them, although they will eventually pay for a huge bailout designed with the help of power lobbyists. When federal departments and agencies give away vast public resources in one-sided sweetheart deals with corporate contractors, the
public is rarely consulted or heard.
A small Consumer Protection Agency — staffed leanly but expertly by economists, accountants, scientists, engineers and lawyers — would press the agencies and the courts to fully consider the consumer perspective in making the decisions that affect our daily lives.
The Consumer Protection Agency would not add a new layer of federal regulation. The agency would have no power to regulate business activity. Instead, it would investigate, develop facts, and present consumer interests to legislators, regulators and courts. It would participate in agency proceedings and challenge federal agency non-enforcement of statutes passed by Congress.
The concept of a federally-created voice for consumers has been around at least since 1959, when Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee sponsored legislation to secure effective representative for the consumer, whom he called the “forgotten man in our Government structure.” In the 1970’s, both Houses of Congress approved legislation to create a Consumer Protection Agency — in some cases by a wide margin. But although President Jimmy Carter promised to sign the legislation, aggressive, well-financed corporate opposition ensured that it was never passed by both Houses in the same session and sent to the President..
The Agency would help promote the safety, quality and availability of consumer products and services; protect consumer choice and competitive markets; prevent unfair and deceptive trade practices; and advance the legal rights of consumers.
And the Consumer Protection Agency would more than pay for itself. The benefits to the public as consumers — in the form of better, safer products and services, more competitive markets, and lower prices — would far outweigh the modest costs. Who speaks for patients confronting high drug prices that drain billions of dollars from ailing people?
Also the potential for Consumer Protection Agency watchdog actions would make federal departments and agencies utilize taxpayer dollars more productively.
Recent history is full of examples of situations where a federal consumer protection agency could have saved taxpayers millions — and also saved precious lives. Imagine if a full-time consumer agency could have weighed in before bank regulators approved the operations and actions of the sharp operators who ran the savings-and-loan industry into the ground — forcing a massive $500 billion federal bailout.
Or if consumers could have been fairly represented when the Department of Transportation cancelled its announced plan to recall six million General Motors pickups with vulnerable fuel tanks that have cost hundreds of lives?
Or if a consumer agency could have participated in FDA proceedings before that agency granted approval to market fatally defective medical devices, where companies hid key safety information. In those cases and many more, the presence of a robust, independent Consumer Protection Agency could have made a major difference. And no doubt there are many more such cases on the horizon. The need for the agency is clear. Write your Senators and Representatives to find out where they stand on this proposal.