With most others talking about the rise and fall of the consumer movement, Michael Pertschuk speaks of its "rise and pause." In his seven years at the Federal Trade Commission, he has done as much as anyone -- save Ralph Nader -- to ensure that the attacks against government regulation of the marketplace are glancing blows, not fatal ones.
Last week, Pertschuk, who comes with a lifetime warranty for integrity, issued two public farewells as his FTC term ended. The first was a speech, the second a 236-page report requested by the House Commerce Committee.
In both, Pertschuk rose above personal parting-shot criticisms against the Reagan anti- regulators now eviscerating the commission. He has no taste for sneering. Instead, he was the traditionalist remembering the warnings of Jefferson about "the vices of commerce" and the ideal of the Founding Fathers that the independent small merchant is the model "economic man." Pertschuk, in his speech and report, came on as a trustee of the old order. He understands that we began as a nation of traders; the marketplace, too, has roots.
Pertschuk's seven years at the FTC -- four of them as chairman -- were contentious. The fighting was forced on him by such Reagan appointees to the commission as chairman James C. Miller, a rogue free-marketeer who should have been a dentist, considering his compulsion for pulling the teeth out of regulatory laws.
Miller-time at the FTC has meant the forced adoption of the chairman's regulatory nihilism. For him, consumers "make very important choices on the basis of information that comes to them by word of mouth, appraising the product in the store and that sort of thing."
Pertschuk prefers the word of law to Miller's word of mouth. As the 31-year-old consumer counsel for the Senate Commerce Committee in 1964, he was on the scene when the laws were proposed, debated and written and were beginning to be enforced. Chances were increased that food labels told the truth, gas pipelines were not blowing up under people's houses, children's pajamas were not catching fire, prices weren't fixed. Shoppers could go into the marketplace with a reasonable belief that they wouldn't subsequently be killed, injured, deceived or robbed by sellers.
In his first four years of working for the Senate Commerce Committee, Pertschuk helped guide eight new consumer protection laws through Congress under the authorship of his employer, Sen. Warren Magnuson of Washington. Between 1967 and 1973, some 25 consumer and environmental protection laws were enacted by Congress. The Federal Trade Commission under Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter was free of ideologues mesmerized by the current unproven theories: consumers don't need much protection and if they do, why should the government do it for them?
Pertschuk is not a liberal Democrat venting his spleen as a sore loser against the victorious Reaganites. He was no admirer of Nixon or Ford, but under them he realized -- as did the rest of the country -- that the FTC remained an agency that could be trusted. "Responding to congressional directives," Pertschuk said last week, "the Ford commission launched a series of major consumer protection rules designed to remedy the most glaring sources of industry- wide deception and abuse -- from funerals and used cars to food additives and hearing-aid sales abuses. The Reagan commission has sidetracked or sought to bury almost every one of these rule initiatives. . . . (It is) the gang that can't rule straight."
Pertschuk's report to the Commerce Committee is likely to have a long shelf life. For those who like truth well-packaged, it has 585 footnotes. Pertschuk can talk in 250-word sentences with the best of bureaucrats, but he remains credible because he doesn't waste his time in useless liberal vs. conservative arguments. He has always had the political sophistication -- and personal grace -- to give the other side its due. He isn't patronizing when saying that "most Republicans believe in enforcing the antitrust laws. Republicans invented them."
The reality remains -- and Pertschuk is owed much for not tiring in pointing it out -- that the Reagan FTC is leading a raw assault on consumer and antitrust laws. It is interpreting the law, not enforcing it. Pertschuk is not overstating: until Reagan, "we have never before had regulatory agencies manned by those who loathe them and scorn their mission."
As with other marketplace frauds, Miller and company will have left the scene before word of mouth catches up to them.