The White House last week set in motion a plan to institutionalize the voice of the consumer in administration decision-making, marking the beginning of a broad effort by President Carter to appeal to consumer interests.
In two separate actions during the week, Carter said he was increasing the policy-making power of his in-house consumer advocate, Esther Peterson, and at the same time it was announced that the White House was going to support a three-year re-authorization of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, deapite earlier opposition from the Office of Management and Budget.
The elevation of Peterson comes in response to the defeat in Congress of an administration-backed bill that would have created a consumer agency to look out for consumer interests in issues before federal agencies.
"Congress told us to do what we could without legislation, and that's just what we are going to do," said Peterson in an interview.
Peterson will now be able to express her opinion on any issue that would affect consumers before the President's decision memorandum on that issue is prepared by White House aide Stuart Eizenstat, or his staff. She will report on the effect any administrative action would have on consumers - a kind of consumer impact statement.
Besides reviewing all existing federal agency consumer programs for the President, and coordinating the actions of those programs, Peterson is preparing a special survey to be given to each egency.
The survey will result in a "Report Card," on that agency, with an evaluation of how responsive it has been to consumer interests. Such questions as "How many times have you met with consumer groups?" and "What do you do with consumer complaints - Have you suggested any legislation because of the complaints?" will be asked in the survey which is awaiting final approval before being sent out.
The first example of Peterson's increased role in decision-making came with Carter's decision to support the three-year budget for the Product Safety Commission. Peterson lobbied heavily for such reauthorization, while OMB officials were anxious to make the beleaguered agency a vic-time of reorganization.
Increasing Peterson's power "is an extremely important step," said Mark Sibergeld of Consumer's Union. "The next time around, when an agency is up for reauthorization, before the White House people list the options for Carter they are going to have to talk to Esther."
"This is an important major thrust for consumers, one that is critically needed at this time," said David Pittle, a mamber of the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the leading candidate to become its next chairman in June. "I have no doubt that Esther and her staff will rise to challenge."
In his memorandum to the heads of departments and agencies last week, announcing the change in Peterson's status, President Carter said:
"One of this administration's pricipal goals is to ensure that each agency of the Federal government adequately responds to consumer needs in its development of policy and provides adequate apportunities for consumer participation in decision-making processes."
While some agencies, like the Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Product Safety Commission, already have statutory powers to fund and seek out consumer participation, most do not.
Pending legislation would give similar authority to all federal agencies.
"What I would ultimately like to have," Peterson says,"is a roster of people around the country who are consumer specialists.We need professionals in this field, so we can go to the best people for certain jobs."
Among the issues Peterson's staff will tackle first are sugar pricing, the metric conversion, privacy and auto-mobile repair fraud.
"Look," says Peterson, "I know the only real power I have is the power of the President, but that power is no laughing matter, and can be quite persuasive."
Peterson says the White House is still wrestling with two problems relating to her new role. It has yet to be determined what intervening power her office will have, or how, for example, it will be able to step in as the voice of the consumer before agency hearings.
The second issue is what to do with the Office of Consumer Affairs in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare - the existing point office for agency consumer representation.
That office began in the White House under Lyndon Johnson, moved to HEW under Nixon, and may move back to the White House under President Carter and Peterson, but that is still undecided. HEW Secretary Joseph Califona is presently studying possible alternatives that will be presented to Carter.