White House consumer advocate Esther Peterson, recently granted a stranger policy-formulation role in the administration, is now attempting to bring many consumer offices scattered around the government together for a concerted push on a variety of issues.
In a breakfast meeting with reporters yesterday, the 71-year-old veteran of many consumer struggles said for the first time publicly that she is trying to "integrate" the staff of the Office of Consumer Affairs of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare into her own staff. While she said that the office, and its budget, could stay within HEW. Peterson said she wanted to have it fall under her authority.
In addition, the perky consumer advocate who has served three presidents in that capacity, said she was seeking review authority over the budgets of all of the estaimated 26 consumer offices in federal agencies.
"I want to look at the whole budget process," she said, - because so often I find so many things being done that aren't in the consumer's interest."
Peterson said she already had begun to exercise the new powers bestowed upon her by the president. She said she had, for the first time, been involved in high level White House discussions on the problems with meat pricing and importing. Although she was the only one at the meeting who called for a suspension of import quotas, an action that would bring the price of meat to consumers downs. She said it was important that the consumer voice was being heard at that level.
In another instance, however, she was apparently successful. She challenged the Office of Management and Budget attempt to limit the new budget for the Consumer Product Safety Commission to two ears instead of three. Carter, who had been leaning toward the two-year authorization, changed his mind after receiving - a political memo" Peterson wrote on the subject, and supported the three-year program she advocated.
Peterson said up front that - I'm certainly not one of the top inside groups members," admitting that she sees the President only when he chooses to drop in on certain meetings. - But," she added, - I certainly feel strongly that he is with us."
During the early stages of the effort to get the ill-fated Consumer Portection Agency bill though congress. Peterson left Washington in a huff after she feld that she had been undercut by White House, insiders who withdrew the bill from action even though she felt she had the votes to win. - I was furious, and I left on a plane, but the president called me when I got off, and asked me to come back. But a lot of people felt I could have gotten it through. My biggest disappointment was being given the responsibility for that bill but not the authority."
Months later the bill did go to the House floor and was defected soundly.
She said the experience had made her - bitter about the lobbyists" who fought the bill, adding that - one of the things that frightens me the most is the growth of corporate lobbying power," and the fact that they are using mainstream people to do their work."
On one speaking tour Peterson said that when she told a questioner the facts he quoted were wrong, the questioner only said. "Well, that's what they sent me from Washington."
I see a pattern of questioning around the country." Peterson said - Where good people have been led to think, that the consumer movement is dangerous."
She said many of the same lobbyists were involved in the recent congressional committee attempt to limit Federal Trade Commission activity in the area of television advertising aimed at children for such things as cereals.
The some people who killed the consumer agency tried to end run and stop us again," she said. - What they were really after in that committee room was sugar, and they succeeded in keeping the ETC from getting into the question of sugar in children's cereals."
But Peterson hopes times have changed, and she will be able to fight such attempts in the future. She is now party to weekly White House staff meetings with Hamilton Jordon, and her input comes in the form of memos to the President before his decisions are made. Her opinion may not often be shared by other Carter advisors - who have their own interests to consider," but at least the consumer viewpoint is being hard, she said.
Peterson says her office would now be getting into the study of all regulations for their impact on and value to consumers. - Some regulations are special interest, and some regulations are absoutely crazy," she said, - and I hope we will get into those. We are now watching the Federal Register every day for the kinds of things we should be getting into."