AFTER MUCH MANEUVERING and many delays, the latest version of the consumer-agency legislation is scheduled to come before the House today. During earlier congressional go-rounds on the issue, we endorsed the creation of a new federal agency to represent consumers' viewpoints before regulatory bodies and in judicial reviews of regulatory decisions. But both the legislation and conditions have changed. In our view, the advocates of the current measure, H.R. 9718, have failed to make a persuasive case for enacting, now, what is left of the idea.
We are not primarily concerned about the powers or costs of the Office of Consumer Representation now proposed. The agency's authority has been substantially cut back, so that it would not have a general license to quiz companies or appeal any regulatory decision it didn't like. On the question of cost, the bill's sponsors maintain that the $15-million budget of the new agency would be more than offset by transfer or elimination of existing consumer programs in over 20 agencies. We find the net-savings claim a bit hard to swallow. If the new office did turn out to be as aggressive as its sponsors plan, its budget would surely grow.Still, it could be worth much more than $15 million - if it were the best way to make federal regulatory bodies more sensitive to considerations such as cost, public health, safety and the other factors often cited as "consumers'" concerns.
That gets to the real problems with this bill. One is the assumption that consumers' interests are so clear, so consistent - and somehow so distinct from the general public interest. Consumer advocates argue, of course, that they do represent the general public. Yet the public interest, in the modern regulatory world, is usually more complex; it may involve balancing a given degree of safety against a certain increment of cost, or keeping down tomorrow's price increases without jeopardizing next year's supplies, or making a much more complicated type of accommodation among a hundred forces and factors bearing on the marketplace. Those who emphasize health or safety or retail cost should certainly be heard, along with those who have other priorities. But to enshrine any particular "consumer" viewpoint in a government advocacy office raises philosophical problems that trouble us.
Beyond that, what is the real purpose here? Surely it's not just to add another voice at agencies' hearings or another pile of briefs on commissioners' desks. One's aim may be "consumer justice," as Mark Green puts it on the opposite page today, or a better grasp of the public interest in all its complexities. In either case, experience suggests that the most productive course is to change the character of the regulatory agencies themselves.
This may sound like a hopeless task. But the Federal Trade Commission, for one, made notable progress even during the Nixon-Ford years when most presidential appointments and executives-branch attitudes were inclined to favor corporate views. Since President Carter took office, some excellent appointments and a real shift in governmental attitudes have greatly improved the prospects for real regulatory reform. Thus there is much less need for any separate intervenor with limited powers - and much more reason for Congress to set this idea aside and concentrate on helping improve the regulatory agencies themselves.