MICHAEL PERTSCHUK, the aggressive critic of American business, was appointed chairman of the Federal Trade Commission by President Carter in 1977. Pertschuk vowed to turn what was then a relatively obscure agency into a "cop on the beat of competiton" and "to redistribute power to the people." In 1981, he was forced out of the chairmanship by President Reagan. Pertschuk chose to remain as a minority party commissioner to complete his seven-year term.
As his term ended this month and he prepared to return to private life, he was interviewed by Washington Post consumer affiars reporter Molly Sinclair. Pertschuk offered some trenchant comments on what he saw as commissioner and a surprisingly critical assessment of his own performance.
"I am very conscious that I am a Washington animal. I think that on the morning after the election in 1980, among the feelings I had -- and none of them were very happy feelings -- I had to confess that I didn't have a very good sense of what the American public was about. Not only did I feel repudiated in my own work, but I didn't have a clue as to what the American people cared about, what made them angry or what they really wanted.So I have a strong feeling that I need to get more involved and have more contact with real people and real communities. And this institute -- the Institute for Public Policy that I am working to help establish -- is a way of doing it. I believe in lobbying, which is a very Washington-centered activity, but only lobbying which is tied to a base in real communities."
"I certainly felt repudiated the morning after the election in 1980 -- rejected and repudiated. But time has told a different story. It is pretty clear to me that what the American people were saying generally is that the prevailing Washington-based solutions weren't working very well. And they wanted to give somebody else a fresh chance. Somebody with new ideas. But if you look hard behind the very crude measure of votes for a president what you find is that the underlying briefs and demands upon government that people have remain unchanged. Ironically, the very programs of the FTC that were under the greatest attack proved to be those very programs that are most popular.
For example, if there is one area in which people demand more aggressive regulation, it is in policing truthful advertising, yet that has been one area in which the Reagan FTC assault has been the most unrelieved."
"It is quite clear that one of the areas which I have been most involved in -- which is advertising -- well, the public essentially says, "We need more regulation of advertising, we don't trust it and we need to have a strong set of standards of truth for this."
. . . The major initiative on which I tripped -- the children's advertising initiative -- was flawed not because it wasn't dealing with a serious problem . . . but because the public has a different sense from the government of what it wants.
The public doesn't want government to ban advertising to children and the public doesn't want government to ban advertising of booze on television. There is a sense among people that "We don't want government controlling for us -- we would basically like to get the information and do it ourselves." Now you can argue that people have been conditioned by various kinds of propaganda to that, but the fact is that that is the way people really feel . . . That reflects a sense [among people] . . . that government doesn't do things very well."
"What I have learned is that every new appointee -- to an independent agency in particular -- has a sense of omnipotence. You forget that Congress is the only democratically elected body in Washington. You get caught up in your sense of mission and you lose touch with the democratic roots of Congress and even become a little contemptuous of it. So I knew what was right, and I was damned if I would tolerate Congress interfering with carrying out what was true and just and right. And that is a very bad attitude in which to approach Congress. It is also wrong."
"I was cocky, arrogant and set the wrong tone."
"I do not believe this government [the Reagan administration] represents one pole in the normal pendulum swing of American policies. It is an aberration. For better or worse we have never before had regulatory agencies manned by those who loathe them and scorn their mission.
The truth is that Jim Miller [the Reagan-appointed chairman of the FTC] and his team were not the worst of the Reagan regulators. They were not crooks. They were not corrupt. They displayed virtues which must not be neglected in any fair assessment.
But part wittingly, part unwittingly, they have crippled the FTC. They have suppressed its energy, neglected its tasks, wasted its resources, while indulging in their own perverse forms of intellectual navel-watching. And they have driven the commission's patiently assembled human capital into reluctant exile in the private sector. While they have fiddled, consumers have been burned. Their policies can be repaired, but the extraordinary hemorrhaging of committed human capital painstakingly built over the 10 years of the commission's renaissance may never be restored. Any they have recklessly dissipated that modest store of public trust which the FTC had begun to gather."
"I believe you need to move on to new challenges. You can't do the same thing too long and be creative and alive. I have been here seven years, pounding away at the same issues and it is important to make a change, take a new challenge."