50 Years Ago This Week, JFK Ushered in Modern Consumer Protection Era

By Ed Mierzwinski
Consumer Program Director

"50 Years Ago This Week, JFK Ushered in Modern Consumer Protection Era"

People of almost any age know a lot about the Kennedy administration with its optimistic beginnings and its sudden, tragic end. Yet many have probably never heard of one of JFK's important legacies -- his declaration that consumers have rights that deserve protection.

Fifty years ago, on March 15, 1962, President Kennedy issued his "Special Message to the Congress on Protecting the Consumer Interest." While his ambitious agenda has not been fully realized, the sweep of his vision bears revisiting.

Kennedy said,

If consumers are offered inferior products, if prices are exorbitant, if drugs are unsafe or worthless, if the consumer is unable to choose on an informed basis, then his dollar is wasted, his health and safety may be threatened, and the national interest suffers.

So, he identified and then called for government action to protect four consumer rights: The right to safety; the right to be informed; the right to choose; and the right to be heard. Other presidents and consumer organizations have added to his work -- proposing rights to consumer education and consumer redress, for example -- but those important additions simply built upon JFK's robust platform.

Kennedy called for enactment of legislation to guarantee the efficacy and safety of prescription drugs and cosmetics because: "Thousands of women have suffered burns and other injuries to the eyes, skin and hair by untested or inadequately tested beauty aids." He called for new food safety rules, which finally passed in 2010.

Above all, Kennedy said, "protection of the public health is not a game."

He called for passage of "truth in lending" legislation to end "serious abuses." He demanded both nutrition and other packaging labeling: "Just as consumers have the right to know what is in their credit contract, so also do they have the right to know what is in the package they buy."

The Kennedy message became a blueprint for a series of important consumer protections that were enacted, many over the next ten or fifteen years, often with the assistance of Consumers Union (founded in 1936) and firepower added by the emergence of the late-sixties Nader's Raiders, the fledgling Consumer Federation of America (1968) and, then, at the local level, the state PIRGs (early 1970s).

The consumer movement whose goals Kennedy's speech helped frame has gone on to win a continued series of achievements. But, it has never been easy. In many ways we are still fighting for the same consumer protections today, because powerful special interests have continued to try to tear them down.

Some federal agencies, notably the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) have repeatedly had their budgets slashed and powers diminished under pressure from powerful special interests.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission established under the administration of Richard Nixon was gutted and left for dead under the Reagan administration. Only the 2007 tsunami of lead-laden toys and other toxic products washing up on our shores from China gave Congress the impetus to reinvigorate the CPSC with 2008 passage of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act.

Today, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce seeks legislation creating regulatory mazes designed to prevent the watchdogs from doing their jobs. Proposals including the Regulatory Accountability Act and the Regulations from the Executive In Need of Scrutiny (REINS) Act have bi-partisan support in both the House and the Senate. A so-called Jobs Act that has overwhelmingly passed the House would make it easy for fraudsters to rip off small or novice investors.

Yet, there have been victories, even though some are slow in coming. In the 1970s, a campaign to establish a federal consumer agency ended in defeat. But thirty years later, after the Wall Street-led collapse of the economy, neither the Chamber nor the American Bankers Association could stop establishment of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in the 2010 Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.

The new CFPB, in many ways, is the first federal agency that fully achieves President Kennedy's vision. It is designed to do what he called for 50 years ago: stop the "serious abuses [that] have occurred" in the credit marketplace, "make available to consumers the results of pertinent government research" and solve the myriad "failure[s] of governmental machinery to assure specific consideration of the consumer's needs and point of view."

The CFPB is the first federal financial agency with only one job, protecting consumers. It's the first federal consumer agency with the authority and independence it needs to do that job.

Of course, powerful special interests have the CFPB in their sights. But the CFPB has both the public's and President Obama's full support.

As President Kennedy said fifty years ago, consumer protection "is not a game." While we haven't yet achieved all of President Kennedy's ambitious agenda "to make certain that our Nation's economy fairly and adequately serves consumers' interests," it's a cause worth fighting for -- for another fifty years, if that's what it takes.

(This column also appears in the Huffington Post. Archive of Ed Mierzwinski's HuffPo columns.)

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