In many ways the consumer movement matured in 1977, entered middle age, if you will.
There were setbacks, especially on the legislative front. But there were subtle victories in some low-visibility areas.
Strong consumer advocates were placed in key positions in several federal agencies, public participation in the descisionmaking process increased sharply, and many agencies facing the threat of legislation took moves on their own to shift the regulatory role from protecting industry to protecting the consumer.
The biggest disappointment for consumer advocates was the failure of Congress to pass legislation establishing a consumer agency. The propsal federal consumer agency would guarantee public participation in regulatory rulemaking. Supporters of the bill hope to get it through Congress this year with a renewed push form the White House.
Big business mounted a major campaign agianst the bill. Not only did Washington-based trade groups and lobyists swarm Capitol Hill with their message, but business organizations nationwide mobilized at the grassroots level, pounding away at the small merchants in each congressional district to urge them to deluge their congressmen with letters and telegrams.
"It's a good bill," says Esther petersson the peppery White House consumer lobbyist. "We are presently taking on inventory of votes to see if we can take it to a vote."
Like many others Peterson was wary of statements from certain congressmen that the bill didn't come to a vote because "the votes to win just weren't there."
"And if it's voted down. "It's going to make a heck of a champaign issue in the fall," she said.
Peterson said her office has been working on structural reform - the deliberate but low-key, building of a firm consumer base within executive and independent agencies. For example, programs to fund public participation in agency decisions have been introduced at the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Power Commission, the Department of Transportation, the Consumer Pro-Product Safety Commission and others.
At the state level, consumer interests are better represented than ever before. Consumer offices and public advocates have been extremely successful in such states as California, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Michigan, Arkansas, Georgia, Maryland and Vermont.
The staff at the consumer office of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare has been helping many state agencies get of the ground by providing research into the laws enacted in other states.
"Structural reforms are hard for the person on the street to understand," says Midge Shubow, Peterson's press aide. "But they will be the ground work for continuing consumer representation in the government."
And slowly but surely, presidential appointments have brought dedicated consumerists into positions of power. Michael Pertschuk has taken over the top spot at the FTC, Joan Claybrook runs the National Highway Traffic Safely Administration, David Pitle was reappointed to the Consumer Product Safty Commission, Carol Foreman is highly placed at Agriculture, and there are many others.
Many of these agencies, facing the handwriting on the wall, have begun to take their own initiatives.
With airline deregulation legislation pending, the Civil Aeronautics Board, under the the direction of its current and past chairman, Alfred Kahn and John Robson, has taken unprecedented steps toward loosening fare and new-carrier-entry rules.
Freddy Laker was allowed to launch "Skytrain" - a low-fare alternative in overseas air travel. Discount fares have flooded the markets in high-travel areas like the coast-to-coast and vacation routes.
At the Interstate Commerce Commission, chairman Dan O'Neal already has begun to implement many of the 39 recommendations of an ICC task force on deregulation.
And the Federal Trade Commission has launched an all-out attack on children's television advertising for sugar-coated cereals and candies.
One of the keys in the consumer movement is the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Burdened with internal start-up problems for its first few years and criticized for moving too slowly in implementing mandatory standards, the CPSC now appears to be operating with some degree of efficiency.
CPSC staffers have made significant progress on voluntary standards. The agency is just beginning to move aggressively in areas where it has encountered resistance such as the aluminum wire industry, which is embroiled in a court fight with the commission. The CPSC also has been at the forefront in encouraging openness in its meetings and decisionmaking process.
But some consumer leaders, such as David Cohen, president of the Common Cause lobby, are disappointed with the participation of President Carter in the consumer effort.
"There needs to be a firm commitment from the President," Cohen says. "And we must have executive ordrs to make some initiatives, like the Sunshine Act, work Up to now, presidential leadership has been lacking."
But Cohen admits that one major advancement of the consumer movement has been in the area of access to the White House.
"Under Nixon, the White House atmosthere was hostile toward the consumer movement," Cohen said. "Under Ford, we had some access to the White House on top-priority issues. But under Carter, we have a lot more access, and our input is heard on most issues."
Perhaps the most significant, yet intangible, gain of the consumer movement has been an attitudinal change in the consumer.
"People are not afraid to take on manufacturers, to write letters to the President, to go to the Better Business Bureau or the local consumer affairs office," said the White House's Shubow.
"When I first came to this office," said Peterson, who also served as a consumer advocate under Lyndon Johnson, "the letters people sent pointed out that shrimp were too small or packages were too small. We have come a long way."
"Now when they write letters," said Shubow, "they ask us why?"
And she adds resumes are pouring in from people who want jobs. "They majored in colleges in consumer studies or consumer economics," she said.
A major study of the state of consumerism was completed this year by Louis Harris and Associates in conjunction with a research group affiliated with the Harvard Business School. The study, funded by Sentry Insurance, found that, although most consumers believe they are getting better information about the products they buy, half feel that they are still getting "a worse deal in the market-place."
The findings of the survey, which involved more than 2,000 personal interviews in excess of an hour each included:
Consumer shopping skills have improved considerably in the past decade, according to 72 per cent.
Product information and labeling have improved, say 70 per cent.
By a margin of 2 to 1 consumers feel that in the next decade products will not last as long as they do now, and it will become more difficult to get things repaired.
Consumers worry most about the high price of many products (77 per cent), the high cost of medical and hospital care (69 per cent), the poor quality of products (48 per cent), and the failure of many products to live up to their advertising (38 per cent).
By a modest majority, (52 per cent to 34 per cent), the public said it favored a new federal consumer agency.
While 45 per cent though government regulations has done a good job, 46 per cent said they thought government regulations has done more to help businesses than consumers.
But everyone agrees that the consumer movement has an active future ahead of it.
Some actions to look for in the coming year, according to CPSC Chairman S. John Byington, will include final rules mandating safety standards on many products including steep wear, power lawn mowers, gas space heaters, Christmas lights, contact adhesives, communications antennae, asbestos, baby rattles and many other items.
Byington says his agency will be conducting regional hearings to allow consumers around the country to comment on the published priorities comment on the published priorities of his agency. Until last year, he said, the CPSC resisted setting any priorities, with the result that the limited staff contiually was jumping from one project to another - and few were ever completed to satisfaction.
"At least now we have set our priorities, and we will be allowing people to say what they think about them." Byington said. "We expect that we will see a higher acceptance of our eventual regulations because of this process."
Over at the FTC, plans are being fromulated in cooperation with the Department of Energy to create a label that would go on all high-energy-using consumer items and describe the amount of energy the device consumes.
According to Pertschuk aide Bill Baer, the informtion would include "what the estimated annual cost that brand of appliance's energy use is."
He said that labels are planned for 13 appliances, including, among others, refrigerators, freezers, dishwashers, dryers and heat pumps.
In addition, the FTC is moving rapidly in the areas of children's television advertising - especially on products containing large amounts of sugar. Among the proposals under consideration is one to ban ads to certain age groups at certain times and another that would give consumer groups access to the airwaves to deliver counter-advertising messages.
There are also plans to require disclosure of the thermal value of home insulation.
Common Cause president Cohen says he looks for action on sunset rules - regulations that would force government programs to be re-evaluated every few years and be justified or automatically face cancellation.
"The sunset rules are the only way you can begin to evaluate some of these programs that would go on forever," says Cohen. "They would give us a systematic look at government regulations."
Cancer-causing substances doubtlessly will face review undr a concerted administration effort to develop a comprehensive plan to evaluate and regulate them. CPSC Commissioner Barbara Franklin has carried her case for a policy on carcinogens to groups around the country - and it appears that her views have received a warm reception.
"She's right," says White House aide Ed Cohn of Franklin's efforts. Cohen, an attorney working for Esther Peterson, added. "We had better do something about carcinogens that make sense."
According to Mark Silbergeld, director of the Washington office of Consumer's Union, other matters that will receive considerable attention in the coming year include further action that will fund public participation in the regulatory decision making process and several actions aimed at making back regulation more responsive to consumer issues.
Public Citizen's Congresswatch, one of Ralp Nader's lobbying arms, also has proposed legislation that would create a National Consumer Cooperative Bank. The plan would include a $250 million pot of money that could be tapped for loans by consumers at prevailing markjet rates. Already passed by the House, it could face a Senate vote by the summer.
Perhaps the most difficult battle to gauge in the coming year wil be the proress of the consumer in getting his voice heard in Congress over the shouts of the business lobby, which so effectively stalled the agency bill in 1977.
And with the exponential growth of PACs, political action committees that fund political efforts by corporations, the consumer lobby was a new and even more sophisticated foe.
The major public battle in 1978 again will be the consumer agency which, according to the White House's Peterson, will be "a voice to represent the consumer who is not organized and does not have the expertise or money to get Washington representation."
But for precisely that reason, the consumer agency bill didn't get through Congress in 1977. With the highest priority of the king of consumer advocates, Ralph Nader, and with the support of the White House, the bill still was unable to pass.The corporate lobby was big enough to stop it.
"They just wanted to stick it to Ralph," said Ed Cohen. "And they were able to sell a bill of goods to everybody who would listen."