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How Is Your Government Doing?

By Don Oldenburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 9, 1997; Page D05

Believe it or not, there is a federal agency that regularly asks for your opinions about how its rules and regulations are working day-in and day-out in the marketplace. Since 1992, when the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) began reforming long-standing regulations, it has reviewed, streamlined, adjusted or abolished about half of its 80 rules and guidelines -- with the help of the public.

In the past month or so, the FTC has asked consumers for their thoughts and criticisms about rules that:

* regulate abuses of pay-per-call 900-number services;

* require manufacturer disclosure on power and distortion levels in stereo amplifiers;

* require optometrists and ophthalmologists to provide patients with their eyeglass prescriptions after an eye exam at no extra cost.

"We separate what the public thinks about it and what the affected parties [industries] think about it," says Jodie Bernstein, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, who adds that the commission lately is trying to draw more consumers and consumer advocacy groups into the process. "All of us have become a little bit better at getting the word out that we want to hear from consumers."

Instead of relying primarily on Federal Register Notices to attract comments, the FTC has broadened contact with the public via its Web site and phone lines. "We've been getting many more comments, a lot of electronic mail and voice mail from consumers," says Bernstein.

In a couple of months, she adds, a new FTC consumer response center, now in the pilot stage, will dramatically improve the agency's efficiency in compiling and analyzing consumer views. "People are becoming much more aware of the fact that we have a consumer-protection mission here," she says.

Some of the rules currently under review seem past their prime. "There have been some very early rules that were really no-brainers, like the one on how to express the measurements of a tablecloth," says Bernstein. But some of these regulations are central to the consumer's best interests.

Last week, for instance, the commission called for public comment on the Negative Option Rule, which applies to mail-order music clubs that sell CDs and tapes, and to book clubs that use pre-notification subscription plans. The 1973 rule requires companies to, among other things, inform customers how to decline unwanted merchandise and how to end their subscriptions after fulfilling their agreements.

"I remember what it was like before we had that rule . . . it was chaos," says Bernstein. "We had thousands of consumers complaining. People were receiving things they didn't order, and if they didn't send it back they had to pay for it. They got billed over and over and over again. They literally had no rights."

Bernstein says the rule leveled the playing field for customers and the industry, but now it might need some fine-tuning. The FTC would like to hear from consumers. "We're really trying to reach out for all kinds of different views," she says.

Copies of the Federal Register Notice calling for public comment are available at the FTC's Web site at and from its Public Reference Branch at 202-326-2222 (TTY for hearing impaired 202-326-2502). For regularly updated recordings about FTC news and actions, call 202-326-2710.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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