Leaders of the consumer movement say the Reagan years will be a time to protect the liberal victories of the late 1960s and 1970s, while building new congressional alliances and turning attention to the pocketbook issues that have dominated recent political debate.
"Some critics would like to dismiss the consumer movement as a group of self-appointed individuals who worry about the price of a can of peas but know nothing about plant closings and capital markets," said Sandra Willett, executive vice president of the National Consumers League.
"But the price of a can of peas is very important to people, and it's getting to be more so. We won't abandon those issues. I don't anticipate an easy time at all. I think money will be tight because of the economy and because traditional sources of money are in such demand.
"The way I interpret the election, the voters are saying they want more private-sector action and less government," Willett said. "People are also saying other things. Even our middle-class members are saying that wages are not keeping up, people are eliminating preventive health care services, the second car, adequate housing, as well as things that stimulate jobs like entertainment and travel. The pocketbook issues really matter."
Willett and long-time consumer activist Ralph Nader say that increasingly the battleground for their movement will be in the courts, because groups such as theirs that had fought for environmental, health and safety and consumer programs will be defending them from Republican challenges before judges instead of legislators.
"Our mission will primarily be to hold the line," Nader said. "We will be using the courts more and more to challenge regulatory action or nonaction and developing the record of anticonsumerism that the Reagan administration will be judged by."
On the other hand, Nader and several other consumer organization representatives note that, while the House membership has changed dramatically and the Senate has moved into Republican hands, the shift also presents several good opportunities for consumer causes. "Packwood," Nader said of incoming Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Sen. Robert Packwood (R-Ore.) "is better than Cannon," the outgoing Commerce panel leader.
Nader also said the Senate Finance Committee would be "more interesting" under Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kans.), than under former chairman Sen. Russell Long (D-La.). Nader said the Dole panel may be more likely to conduct detailed investigations into small business problems, for example. "Some of them may have been good guys, but they were running on empty," Nader said of the out-of-power Democrats.
In addition, Nader also said that he does not dismiss support for some of the issues that concern his organizations from several of the new conservative Senate members. "If one or two of the right-wing senators suddenly take out after corporate fraud and lies, that opens up the right flank for the consumer movement," Nader said. "If consumer groups can get a few allies in the Republican camp, then we'll have support for key issues in the Senate."
Winning congressional support for marketplace regulatory activities like those that have in recent years been in the hands of agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission is particularly important, Nader said.
"They'll try to cut or gut the budgets of the agencies," Nader said. "The FTC, if they have their way, will become basically a no-law agency. I have every reason to believe that the Reaganites will make consumers pay and pay and pay for policies, cop-outs, nonenforcement of consumer laws and with increases in gas and food prices."
But many key conressional chairmanships remain up in the air, including key consumer slots on both the Senate and House Commerce committees, Nader said. And FTC Chairman Michael Pertschuk likes to remind listeners that many of the agency's key initiatives in recent years were started during Republican FTC chairmanships. "We may make a serious miscalculation if we assume that a conservative administration will undermine these initiatives," he said in a recent speech.
But Nader notes that Pertschuk is likely to lose his chairmanship soon after Reagan takes office, and simultaneously administration officials with a Nader-like ideological orientation will leave office.
"When you rely on law enforcement as part of the consumer movement, you're not as likely to organize your power," Nader said. "We can't say that Carol Foreman [a former consumer activist who became an assistant secretary of agriculture] is there anymore. We will be organizing into the states for referendums and initiatives."
Although losses of Nader allies from key Carter administration posts -- like Foreman and Joan Claybrook, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration -- hurt, Nader and other activists said the personnel shifts will only help spur needed grass-roots activities.
"The state of the consumer movement is justifiably apprehensive about some of the things that will be tried and that will happen but surprisingly optimistic about the signs of apparent strength from the grass roots," said Andrew Schwartzman, of the Media Access Project. "Organizations are ready to dig in."
Schwartzman said it is vital that consumer groups step up their organizing activities to ensure that the increasingly effective public relations of corporate America do not go unchallenged.
Herbert Simmons, director of the District of Columbia Office of Consumer Protection and a long-time consumer organizer, also acknowledged the need for effective grass-roots efforts, but Simmons believes the emphasis of the movement also has to shift more toward consumer education. "The consideration of consumers in the marketplace will not change with the change of administrations," Simmons said.